Alex Bowman’s dominant performance at Auto Club Speedway on Sunday has led many to declare the return of Hendrick Motorsports to the front of the field.
After all, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson finished fourth and seventh, respectively, and each also led laps during Sunday’s race. William Byron even led a lap, marking the first time every Hendrick car has led a lap in a single race since last year’s spring race at Dover.
The previous race at Las Vegas foreshadowed the strength of Hendrick Motorsports, with Chase Elliott sweeping stages one and two and Jimmie Johnson contending, even after an encounter with the wall.
While a tire problem took Elliott out of contention, it was clear he had some serious raw speed. The team’s successful showing at Auto Club was the logical continuation of this success.
Bowman Can Win, but hasn’t Found Consistency
This next race at Phoenix will be a telltale sign of the short track progress Hendrick and its drivers have made. Bowman nearly took victory there when he substituted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016.
However, he has struggled to find success since then, wrecking out in two of his four races at the track since that near-miss in 2016. Struggles to find continued success after achieving it has been a theme for Bowman.
After he won at Chicagoland last season, it took him six races to score another top 10 finish, and six more to score another top five finish. Bowman only led in six races all season, including three in a row during his three-race runner-up streak during the spring.
So, while his second career win is a step in the right direction, Bowman still has to prove he’ll be a weekly contender.
Elliott’s Fast, but Can He Finish?
Certainly, Chase Elliott qualifies and runs well at Phoenix, but struggles to get the finishes he deserves. This has been a theme with Elliott: Leading plenty of laps, but faltering late and ending up with a lackluster finish.
This is what happened to him in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago. However, Elliott’s six career Cup Series wins show his ability to close the deal.
Elliott led in exactly half of the races in 2019, indicating his ability to get out front routinely, and showing how much raw speed he had, even if it didn’t last. If he can get better at closing the deal, especially in races when he leads lots of laps, then he could very well be a championship contender.
Johnson is Always a Threat
Jimmie Johnson is on the upswing these last couple weeks, scoring fifth and seventh place finishes in the last two races. He’s amassed four wins and 15 top five finishes in 33 starts at Phoenix, so another good run certainly isn’t out of the question.
Recently, Johnson has struggled to finish off good runs, like Elliott. What Johnson has lacked is the dominating speed of Elliott. He led only 131 laps in 2019 and has led 13 laps so far this season.
This season does look better for Johnson so far, but that race-dominating speed has been absent for years now. However, it’s just impossible to count Johnson out. As his winless streak grows, it’s hard to believe that Johnson won’t win again before his career is out.
Byron is Finding Speed
William Byron has been seen as the “weak link” at Hendrick, and, being only 22 years old, in his third full-time Cup Series season, it’s not terribly surprising.
However, Byron has had some good runs, and has been improving since his rookie season in 2018. In 2018, Byron only scored four top ten finishes and failed to score a single top five finish.
The next season, he scored five top five finishes and 13 top ten finishes. Byron also took home an impressive five pole positions after not winning a single one in 2018. While none of this has translated to race wins yet, the race-winning speed did appear to be present at the Charlotte Roval and Sonoma.
His biggest asset, though, might be seven-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus. After all, Knaus knows a thing or two about race-winning speed. The future is bright for Byron, and the wins are coming.
So, are they Back?
Hendrick is certainly on its way back, but this isn’t new: Hendrick’s resurgence has been a work in progress for years, ever since the retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
With Chase Elliott contending regularly, Alex Bowman taking home wins, Jimmie Johnson on the upswing in his swan song season, and William Byron on the rise, the future is certainly bright for Hendrick Motorsports.