Larson already clinched a spot in the Championship 4 based on his Las Vegas Motor Speedway triumph to lead off the Round of 8. Byron is currently leading the standings, holding a 30-point cushion to make the cut no matter who wins at Martinsville Speedway this weekend.
Looking ahead to Phoenix, these drivers combined to lead 265 of 317 laps run back in the spring. Byron emerged victorious in that one with Larson fourth after earning the pole and snagging a stage two victory. None of their six rivals competing for a spot in the Championship 4 led a single lap in that Phoenix event.
A title by one of these drivers would be the third for Hendrick Motorsports in the last four seasons. If Byron wins, it would also be the third different driver to go along with Chase Elliott (2020) and Larson (2021); it’s the first time that would happen in NASCAR history.
That would lend credence to HMS’ claim it’s never been more of a team effort behind closed doors. In May 2021, it earned its first 1-2-3-4 finish in team history at Dover Motor Speedway, combining to lead 382 of 400 laps. Owner Rick Hendrick gushed about the way all teams were working together; indeed, all four drivers won at least once and cleared the Round of 12 in the postseason.
“I think these guys,” Hendrick said then. “They’re young guys. I mean, they’ve got a lot of runway ahead of them. We should just get better. They will get better. We will get better. I love the chemistry. I think we’re in good shape for a while.”
The question as we end 2023 is whether that window of keeping all the HMS cars superglued at the top is running out. For as good as Larson and Byron have been this year, Elliott and Alex Bowman have struggled to keep pace.
Let’s start with Elliott, who weirdly enough could still make the owner’s Championship 4 with the No. 9 Chevrolet. It would take a major upset, winning Martinsville as he’s too far below the cut line (77 points) to make it otherwise entering the weekend.
Winning has been the problem for Elliott, a season that started off on the wrong foot with that snowboarding injury in Colorado and never fully recovered. Missing a total of seven races — six for his fractured left tibia and one for knocking Denny Hamlin into the wall in May’s Coca-Cola 600 — he limped through the regular season and has quietly needed to rebuild consistency after missing the playoffs.
Part of the problem for Elliott has been track position; his average start of 17.3 is the worst of his career by a whopping six positions (11.3 in 2016). 112 laps led, barring a surprise in the next two weeks, will also end up being a career low by a wide margin.
Alex Bowman also struggled through injuries this year, fracturing his vertebra during a sprint car crash away from NASCAR racing. Missing five races, he’s sitting just 21st in the standings, the lowest for any HMS full-timer since Byron’s rookie year in 2018. It’s the second straight season he’s gotten hurt, missing five races of the 2022 Cup playoffs after suffering a concussion during a wreck at Texas Motor Speedway.
Understandably, the time spent outside the car in-season leaves both drivers optimistic they’ll recover quickly in 2024. But the difference in performance between the Nos. 9 and 48 versus their counterparts competing for the title is a wide chasm compared to two years ago, the final year of the Gen-6 chassis.
2021 Cup Stats: Hendrick Motorsports
|Team||Wins||Top 5s||Avg. Finish||Laps Led||Points|
|No. 5: Kyle Larson||10||20||9.1||2,581||1st|
|No. 9: Chase Elliott||2||15||11.4||952||4th|
|No. 24: William Byron||1||12||13.6||425||12th|
|No. 48: Alex Bowman||4||8||15.1||161||14th|
Bowman trailed the others in laps led but his four victories more than made up for it; within a dominant season by Larson, it was clear HMS had chemistry in all four cars across the board.
Now, let’s take a look at where we are now.
2023 Cup Stats: Hendrick Motorsports
|Team||Wins||Top 5s||Avg. Finish||DNF||Laps Led||Points|
|No. 5: Kyle Larson||4||14||15.2||8||1,127||4th*|
|No. 24: William Byron||6||14||11.1||3||921||1st|
|No. 9: Chase Elliott, Josh Berry, Jordan Taylor, Corey LaJoie||0||8||13.6||3||122||17th|
|No. 48: Alex Bowman, Josh Berry||0||4||16.6||4||92||21st (Bowman)|
Keep in mind the average finish for Larson is a little deceiving and why DNFs are included in 2023. His aggression had ruined what could have been a handful of other wins under the right circumstances. The better comparison is Byron versus Nos. 9 and 48; the gap in laps led and top fives is astronomical compared to two years ago.
How does the team restore balance going forward? It’ll be interesting to see if Hendrick makes a change in leadership with either program: Alan Gustafson has been with Elliott and the No. 9 since his promotion to Cup in 2016. Has their relationship run its course?
A swap with Bowman could offer upside; Blake Harris was a prized crew chief prospect, leading Michael McDowell to a surprise 11 top-10 finishes in 2022, but he’s struggled to produce results in his first year running the No. 48. Gustafson could be a veteran presence needed to guide Bowman back after two seasons of underperformance.
The bigger, unanswered question is how Elliott might handle a Larson title. The sport’s Most Popular Driver has won 18 times during his eight-year career at HMS; Larson is one victory short of matching that total in just three seasons. Teamwork requires the ability to sacrifice individual goals for the common good. Can Elliott stomach falling that far behind Larson with no end in sight?
Jeff Gordon will be immensely helpful here after dealing with getting overshadowed during much of the last decade of his career (ever heard of Jimmie Johnson?) The two still maintained a healthy friendship, contributing to the success of the organization, even though Gordon never won another title once the No. 48 team came around.
By then, though, Gordon was eight years into a Cup career that was already Hall-of-Fame worthy. Elliott has a long road ahead of him, turning just 28 years old in, November and doesn’t have half the resume Gordon had then.
Hendrick may indeed get the championship it seeks, NASCAR’s New York Yankees adding onto its record-setting hardware. But the long-term plan that seemed so stable a few years ago? 2024 will tell us if it’s reaching the end of that “perfect” window.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …
- What a seven days for Ryan Blaney. From getting disqualified at Las Vegas to seeing that DQ rescinded and grinding out a 10-point edge on the bubble after a runner-up finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. may have the wins at Martinsville but they better leave with a grandfather clock if they want to advance in the title race; Blaney’s career average finish there (9.5) is better than both of them.
- My thoughts on AJ Allmendinger have changed in the past few weeks. Feels like it would really be a shame if he took a step back down to the NASCAR Xfinity Series, right? He’s now doubled his top-five finishes this season in just the past three races.
- Sam Mayer has won four of the last 12 Xfinity Series races. Chew on that a minute. Before that stretch? He was 0-for-70. Hard to believe it’s him, not Justin Allgaier, emerging as JR Motorsports’ best hope for a title.
About the author
The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.
You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.
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