Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: The 2 Alpha Problem at Hendrick Motorsports

1. The Cup Series Regular Season Champ Is on the Verge of Some Dubious History

The bottom four drivers to make the NASCAR playoffs in the NASCAR Cup Series almost always barely made it into the field, so it’s no surprise when they get eliminated in the Round of 16. Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell are all sticking right to the script by being on the outside looking in with just Bristol Motor Speedway to go before the number of title contenders is trimmed to 12.

But if you’d kindly cue up “One of These Things (Is Not Like the Others)” from Sesame Street, you’ll find it the perfect backdrop for us to discuss someone who definitely should not be in that group: Martin Truex Jr.

See also
Up to Speed: Past Champions on the Playoff Bubble

You may recall that Truex was the regular season champion. He got a trophy at Daytona International Speedway and everything. It’s really not a big deal in and of itself, especially to a guy like Truex, for whom “it’s not a big deal” is his default state. Yet the current system does make it difficult for the regular season champ to be knocked out before the Round of 12, and indeed, he came into the playoffs tied with William Byron in playoff points and looking every bit like a potential title contender.

After heading to Daytona on a legit hot streak of six straight results of seventh or better, however, the wheels have all but literally fallen off the No. 19 team. A disappointing 18th at Darlington Raceway was followed by a season-worst 36th at Kansas Speedway thanks to a cut tire that sent Truex into the wall, then out of the race just three laps in.

Truex is only seven points behind Kevin Harvick for the final spot in the Round of 12, so it’s not like he’s got an insurmountable hill to climb. The problem is that Truex has been inconsistent in the Bristol fall race over the past three seasons, with an average finish of 22.3, while Harvick has finished in the top 10 in each of those same three races, including a win and a runner-up result.

Unless he can shrug off both his current form and recent history, Truex will set a record he’d probably rather not hold. The regular season championship has only officially been a thing since 2017, but no one to win it has ever failed to make the Round of 8, let alone the Round of 12 (and the only driver to not make the Championship 4, ironically, was Harvick in 2020).

Truex and his team are certainly capable of coming up big when it counts, but there’s more working against them than usual, and considering the specific circumstances in play, it would now almost be more surprising if they advanced than if they fell short.

2. If Truex Is Out, Who Are the Championship Favorites Now?

What a difference a win makes. Tyler Reddick entered the NASCAR playoffs in 10th place, but his victory at Kansas has moved him up to sixth in terms of the betting odds to win the championship, according to DraftKings. He’s right behind Kyle Busch and Truex, who the books haven’t given up on yet, and just ahead of the two RFK Racing drivers.

That feels right. Reddick hasn’t quite done enough on a consistent basis to be considered one of the favorites to reach Phoenix Raceway, though one more win could change my mind. Ahead of Truex are three drivers who not only occupy three of the top four spots in the playoff standings but also pass the eye test (college football fans know what I mean) as contenders.

Kyle Larson already has one playoff win, is a former champion and has a proven track record of performing well in the fall. William Byron has five wins this year, including one at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a Round of 8 venue. And Denny Hamlin could easily have won already had things played out differently at Darlington or Kansas, appears fast more weeks than not and generally does well at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway.

Until they prove otherwise, those three figure to be around until the end. Can Reddick join them? Will either Chris Buescher or Brad Keselowski rise to the challenge and grab the fourth spot? That’s why we watch.

See also
Holding a Pretty Wheel: Teammates Can Be the Difference of Contending & Watching Others Contend

3. The Kyle Larson-Chase Elliott Thing May Not Go Away

Superteams look good on paper but don’t always work out smoothly in real life. That goes for any sport because all athletes have egos, and superstars tend to have even bigger ones that help them reach that level. Generally speaking, however, it’s best when there are superstars, some supporting stars, and then role players that help fill out an ideal team.

In a NASCAR organization with three or more cars, this is a tricky balance to reach, because there’s almost always one driver who is The Man while the others are a step or so below them. There are exceptions: RFK Racing was pretty egalitarian in its heyday, and you could certainly say that Keselowski and Joey Logano were peers on Team Penske.

Hendrick Motorsports may have managed egos the best when it had both Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in the same garage. But it’s that same organization that looks like it may now have an ongoing rift between two alpha dogs.

Not that Larson and Chase Elliott are traditional alphas, mind you. Larson is way too businesslike, while Elliott gives off a, “What, me worry?” vibe even when things are going poorly, like this season.

Still, there’s the feeling that under the surface, both drivers feel they can and should be considered The Man for Hendrick. Elliott is the man of the people, Larson the racing prodigy. Both are champions and know exactly what that entails.

That’s why even though Larson played off their run-in this week on the track, it’s worth keeping an eye on the situation going forward. Maybe they really will have a discussion about it, decide to put it behind them and realize they can coexist. But maybe not, and that’s when things could get really intriguing in HMS in 2024 and beyond.

4. Add Kansas to the List of Potential One-Race Candidates

With all due respect to what appears to be a perfectly fine facility overall, Kansas Speedway was never a place I looked forward to watching a race since … well, ever, really. As nondescript intermediates go, it’s always been right near the top of the list.

A funny thing happened, though, since the introduction of the Next Gen car: The racing at Kansas has gotten much better, and even though this past weekend’s event wasn’t necessarily the creme de la creme in that regard, for pure racing action alone, Kansas would be a fine place to keep two races.

The attendance, however, says otherwise. It’s impossible to know how many people were in attendance on Sunday (Sept. 10) to see Reddick win, but it darn sure wasn’t a sellout. It doesn’t seem likely that will change just because the racing has improved, either, as it hasn’t been the case at other tracks on the Cup Series schedule.

Do you know what has helped? Taking some of those tracks down to just one race weekend a year. It certainly was much fuller at Pocono Raceway this summer, and having a single race weekend simply creates a sense of urgency to go see the race that isn’t there for facilities with two races.

There hasn’t been a ton of chatter about Kansas losing a race for 2024, but it’s worth considering for NASCAR and the track itself for 2025 and beyond.

See also
The Big 6: Questions Answered After Tyler Reddick's Bold Move to Win in Kansas

5. The Bottom 4 Are (Probably) Staying There

OK, so who makes it out of Bristol to the Round of 12? It would be a fun story if either Wallace or McDowell advanced, and as previously discussed, Truex really doesn’t want to go out here.

It’s just that Harvick is really good at Bristol, and barring a mechanical failure or getting caught up in a wreck, not of his own making, there’s no reason to think that’s going to change. Also, Harvick staying alive for the championship is a good story too.

At least for a few more weeks.

The call here is the top 12 stays the way it is going into Bristol, sending McDowell, Stenhouse, Wallace … and yes, even Truex, home.

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Christopher

Re Larson and Elliott, it seems, in my opinion, that it is Elliott that has an attitude problem since Larson came to HMS. With Elliott’s miserable record since the Next Gen car was introduced, Larson is statistically the more consistent driver of the two. It is very reminiscent of the years when Johnson dethroned Gordon as the top HMS driver. Gordon struggled with it, as anyone who witnessed those years knows. Elliott, built up as another Golden Boy, is not quite Mr. Likability. He’s often sullen with reporters and petty on the track. But he doesn’t have the record of success that Gordon had, and has no basis to act the way he does because he’s been upstaged by a more talented driver.

Echo

Larson could care less if he’s called top dog. Haven’t you paid attention to his whole racing career. All he wants to do is race cars and win and win again. Larson drive anything, Chase is having problems learning this car. Don’t forget, Byron has 5 wins. So chase is 3rd.

John

The problem at Hendrick is Elliott–he thinks that he’s the anointed one, but shoving people around and even getting suspended for rough driving makes him into just another punk right now. He needs to get his act together.

Bill B

I don’t think there is a problem at all. Just two guys racing hard and getting frustrated and taking it out on each other. It’s not like it happens every week.

I would wager that at least one or two drivers above the cut line will have major issues at Bristol. That will open the door for Truex but he still needs to finish in top 5 most likely to capitalize on it.

Shayne

Rick Hendrick needs to put on his “alpha” hat and tell Elliott to quit acting like a spoiled child.

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