As the remaining races in 2018 dwindle, Hendrick Motorsports finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
Three of its four drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman — advanced to the 2018 NASCAR Playoffs. And those same three drivers are in precarious positions after falling victim to incidents in Sunday’s wild playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“We could have closed with a top-five finish that would have really helped and given us a cushion,” Johnson said post-race after finishing 22nd. “Today was really a good day for the Lowe’s team. We had good speed in the car, good pit stops, everything was going well and unfortunately, cut a right-front tire.”
“That is the most speed we have had on a 1.5-mile (track) all year,” Bowman said, his No. 88 coming up 19th after a late incident.
For the organization that’s struggled all year to find speed — particularly at 1.5-mile tracks — flashes of speed (in spite of subpar finishes) on an intermediate may ordinarily bring a touch of encouragement. Johnson was running as high as third, while Bowman and Elliott ran more than 70 percent of their laps in the top 15.
The NASCAR Playoffs change that. Mid-race speed doesn’t mean much if the finish puts a driver on the wrong side of the cutline. So, while the organization is making some strides, is it too late for 2018?
“Playoffs, man” Johnson said. “… It means so much to everybody to be in the playoffs and have a shot at a championship. Everybody is just trying really hard.”
“Everyone is trying really hard” — that’s important, as obvious as it seems. A friend in the industry pointed out the following recently; if a driver makes the next round of the playoffs, that means someone else doesn’t. For all three Hendrick drivers to advance to the next round, they’ll have to outrun four other playoff competitors over the next two weeks to remain in contention. That sounds simple, but who would they eliminate? The majority of the playoff field has been strong throughout 2018 and with the way it’s been running, Hendrick isn’t beating the Kyle Busches or Kevin Harvicks of the field yet.
Perhaps Hendrick’s saving grace in this round of the playoffs is the next track on the circuit: Richmond Raceway. Because it’s a short track, there’s less emphasis on aero, where the team has struggled this season. Elliott finished second to Kyle Busch in the spring event at the Virginia track, while Johnson recorded a sixth-place result. In the series’ most recent trip to a short track with Bristol Motor Speedway, Elliott (third place), Bowman (eighth place) and Johnson (ninth place) all placed in the top 10.
The key for these three drivers — and the majority of the field, really — is to run well at Richmond before the Charlotte road course, which is being treated like the Talladega of road courses. The tests proved its unpredictability and no one wants to go into that weekend with a precarious position in the playoff standings.
My prediction for the HMS camp is that with a strong Richmond showing (and a whole lot of care and prayers at the Roval), Johnson and Elliott will advance on points and Bowman will be eliminated after the opening round. ‘Seven-Time’ has the experience of prevailing under pressure and is well-versed in how to protect his position or slightly advance it when needed, even if the No. 48 team can’t find a way back to Victory Lane right now. Elliott seems more likely, too, as the only Hendrick driver who has won this season and, at times, the team that has shown the most speed among the four-car stable. For a newcomer like Bowman, his chances seem less likely given that he doesn’t have the precious experience of running in the playoffs.
Regardless, for all three of these teams — and the No. 24 of William Byron that did not make the playoffs — this is a rebuilding year. Half of its drivers are new, the Camaro ZL1 is new and they’re still playing catch-up to the rest of the field. Any elimination from the playoffs gives Hendrick teams more opportunities to focus on preparing for 2019 and beyond. It may be too late for 2018 for some, but there’s plenty of racing left for these four wheelmen’s careers.
And let’s be honest; it’s Hendrick Motorsports and they can’t stay down for too long.