Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Will 2024 Be Hendrick’s Winningest Season?

1. Will Talladega Superspeedway produce the first wild-card winner?

Any time NASCAR heads to a superspeedway, fans are ready to place their bets on a sleeper. And for teams who are struggling to start the season and falling behind on competing for a playoff spot, Talladega Superspeedway may present the best shot for them to right the ship.

The problem is that the top NASCAR Cup Series teams are reaping the spoils there, too. In the last 10 races at Talladega, seven were won by a driver from Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing. The outliers came from 23XI Racing (Bubba Wallace), Trackhouse Racing (Ross Chastain) and Richard Childress Racing (Kyle Busch). But all three teams have at least one driver in position to make the playoffs right now, and 23XI and Trackhouse each have two.

Reigning champion Ryan Blaney has had a chokehold on the track lately, finishing in the top two three consecutive times and winning three of the last nine races at the behemoth.

Meanwhile, the sport’s hottest driver right now is William Byron, and while he has yet to win at Talladega, he is the only driver with multiple superspeedway wins in the Next Gen era. On top of that, he has finished in the top 10 in five of the last six superspeedway events.

However, if a wild card winner does emerge this weekend, who could it be? Erik Jones has to be looked at as a favorite among the sleepers. He was a tri-oval away from winning the spring 2022 Talladega race, and he has earned a top 10 in four of the past fives races in Alabama.

You can also never count out Ricky Stenhouse Jr. All three of his Cup wins have come on superspeedways, including the spring 2017 race at Talladega. The 2023 Daytona 500 champion has only finished in the top 15 once at Talladega since a runner-up in the June 2020 event, but that shouldn’t stop you from keeping an eye on him.

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2. Is Hendrick Motorsports primed to make 2024 their winningest season yet?

This has already been a pretty historic year for Hendrick Motorsports as it celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Byron and Alex Bowman kicked off the year with a 1-2 finish in the Daytona 500, Byron led an HMS 1-2-3 finish at Martinsville Speedway (a first in the track’s history), and three of its drivers have combined for five wins through nine races.

That pace currently has the legendary organization on track to reach 20 wins by the end of the season, something the team has not achieved. The highest mark HMS set was 18 wins in 2007, while its drivers tallied 17 in 2021 and 14 in 1998.

To compare, HMS also had five wins through the first nine races of 2007. In 2021, the team had three victories at that mark, while it had two through the first nine events of 1998. So in relation to those years, that 20-win milestone is very attainable.

Now, despite a season that has been the HMS vs. Joe Gibbs Racing invitational thus far, things could slow down. Rick Hendrick‘s team collected four wins in the first nine races each of the past two seasons, finishing with 11 and 10 victories, respectively. Much of that can be attributed to the parity of the field that the Next Gen car brought, with other teams catching up as the year went along.

With Byron collecting three trophies, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott each reaching victory lane and Bowman looking back in form, HMS is showing no signs of slowing down. It’s up to the rest of the field to catch up at this point.

3. When will NASCAR see another back-to-back champion?

A day after NASCAR wrapped up its short track swing at Martinsville Speedway, the University of Connecticut claimed its second consecutive NCAA Men’s Basketball Division I title. The Huskies became the first back-to-back champions since the University of Florida accomplished the feat in 2006-2007.

Until Connecticut’s triumph, NCAA men’s basketball held the second-longest stretch among mainstream American sports without a back-to-back champion. With that no longer being the case, who moved into second? You guessed it, the Cup Series.

MLB currently has the longest drought since a team won consecutive titles, with its streak dating back to 2000 when the New York Yankees claimed their third straight World Series crown and 26th overall. The NFL, NBA, NHL and NCAA football have each seen a repeat champion within the past decade.

NASCAR’s last back-to-back champion came in 2010, when Jimmie Johnson won his whopping fifth title in a row. But when the sport introduced a whole new playoff format in 2014, the odds of winning the Bill France Cup twice in a row became colossal.

A couple of drivers have come close to achieving the feat since then. Kevin Harvick nearly kicked off the current playoff era with two straight titles, finishing second to Busch in the 2015 championship race. Three years later, Martin Truex Jr. came up one spot short of successfully defending his 2017 title, losing to Joey Logano in 2018.

Outside of those two instances, drivers have proven that not only is it extremely difficult to win back-to-back championships, it is also tough to get back to the Championship 4. Harvick, Truex, Busch and Elliott are the only drivers who have returned to the title race a year after winning it.

This year, Blaney is looking to become the first champion to successfully defend under the current playoff format. Through nine races, he sits seventh in points with four top fives and four top 10s. Yet given Ford’s slow start to the year, it seems the Penske driver currently has even more odds stacked against him in the moment.

Penske won the past two titles after emerging late in the season, so the slow start for the blue oval shouldn’t deter Blaney from making history. But if history speaks for itself, the odds are heavily stacked against him.

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4. Do the bumps at Texas need to be smoothed out?

Last weekend’s racing at Texas drew a mixed bag of reactions, but many appeared to believe the racing was better overall than in past races on the current configuration.

With an exciting finish between Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and a wild Cup race that featured 16 cautions (the most in the track’s history), Texas may have even gained a little traction.

It’s still unclear whether or not the track will keep its current configuration or be reconstructed into a different one. If it does remain as it is, there have been discussions that the track needs to smooth out the bumps in turn 4.

Turn 4 was a treacherous point for many drivers during the weekend, as Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Michael McDowell were among several drivers to have their cars snap around once they hit the bumps. It’s something that has been seen a multitude of times since the inception of the Next Gen car.

However, the other question should be if the track is starting to develop character.

One of Texas’ largest problems has been the passing lanes. While nearly all intermediates present multiple grooves and lane options, Texas has been a single-lane track, even despite NASCAR adding PJ1. As the pavement has aged and the PJ1 substance has worn away over the years, a second lane has slowly worked its way in.

That’s where the conflict meets, as the turn 4 bumps are right in the path of the outside lane at TMS.

It definitely adds character to the track, and Texas has established itself as a race of attrition the past few events. For a track that many internally and externally had wanted to be demolished, Texas may finally have something with which to work.

The track certainly isn’t out of the woods, and there is no guarantee that it stays in its current configuration. If it does, recent races show that it is finally trending toward its own unique identity.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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