If I were to tell you in 2004 that Hendrick Motorsports would be underperforming but the most popular team in all of NASCAR 15 years later, you would have ostracized me from the sport. As surprising as it is, that is the state of the Chevrolet affiliate in 2019. After years of finishing in the back of the pack with subpar equipment, Alex Bowman paid his dues, earned a top ride with Hendrick, and won his first career Cup Series race last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Bowman has had the best season of his career and, alongside teammate, Chase Elliott, are trending towards a deep playoff run this season. Sunday was a vintage performance for Team Hendrick as all four of their cars were running inside the top ten for a majority of the race. Elliott suffered pit road issues but rallied to claim an 11th-place finish. William Byron looked as though he had a car to win the race but was unable to get back to the front in the third stage. Byron has the car and the skill but due to his inexperience, he has yet to learn how to close out races. He suffered the same setbacks at Sonoma where he won stage one but sacrificed a race win for playoff points. It is only a matter of time before Byron earns his stripes and starts winning races.
Seven-time champion, Jimmie Johnson was in contention to win a race for the first time since 2017 and is now a fan-favorite after being the most hated in the late 2000s-early 2010s due to his dominant championship seasons. No matter the driver, NASCAR fanbase tend to turn against drivers once they put together a multi-win season. Most recently, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick have become “villains” in the sport because of their recent domination and manufacturer affiliation. This leaves Hendrick Motorsports as “America’s Team”. Young and likable guys like Bowman, Elliott, and Byron help Hendrick become the fan-favorites but it also involves NASCAR not having another competitive Chevy team. The closest Chevy competition Hendrick has is Chip Ganassi Racing but neither Kyle Larson nor Kurt Busch have won this season. This sport is definitely in unprecedented times, especially with the outpouring of love and support for a team who was once hated due to their on-track rivalry with the most popular driver of all time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. We cannot lock in that Hendrick is on the same level as Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske but the potential is there and all signs are pointing in that direction.
NASCAR heads back to Daytona for the final time on Independence Day weekend for one of the great traditions in the sport, the Coke Zero 400. The race will move to late August starting next season.
Photo via AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh.