Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

2021 season preview: Hendrick Motorsports

Editor’s Note: Today’s Hendrick Motorsports preview completes NASCAR.com’s countdown of team previews for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, ranked in reverse order of best finish in last year’s owner standings.

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS

Manufacturer: Chevrolet
Engine: Hendrick Motorsports
Driver-crew chief pairings: Kyle Larson-Cliff Daniels (No. 5), Chase Elliott-Alan Gustafson (No. 9), William Byron-Ryan “Rudy” Fugle (No. 24), Alex Bowman-Greg Ives (No. 48)

What’s new: Plenty, actually. The departure of seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson opened a prime vacancy on one of NASCAR’s longest-running four-car teams, which now skews younger with four drivers in their 20s. Alex Bowman shifted over to take the reins of the No. 48 Chevrolet, and newcomer Kyle Larson was hired to take Bowman’s place, with that team changing car numbers from No. 88 to the team’s original, No. 5. Rudy Fugle is the lone newbie among the HMS crew chief ranks, pairing with William Byron on the No. 24, and Cliff Daniels will work with Larson after his previous partnership with Johnson ended. The other two driver-crew chief pairings remain intact.

MORE: Changes to know for 2021

Team outlook: A virtual whirlwind of change-ups greet the organization that hoisted the Cup Series title for the 13th time, with first-time champ Chase Elliott doing the honors. All four teams should contend for race wins and have the potential for deep playoff runs. A revamped 2021 schedule should especially suit Elliott, the sport’s current ruler on road courses. Still, questions remain for his three teammates. How soon will Larson regain his form after nearly a year out of a Cup Series ride? Can Byron and Fugle recreate the magic they had in a seven-win Camping World Truck Series season five years ago? Will Bowman build on his best Cup Series season and begin writing his own chapter in the No. 48 team’s top-shelf legacy? Time will tell.

Racing Insights stats break: Hendrick Motorsports won seven times in 2020 — its most since nine in 2015 — and is only six wins away from passing Petty Enterprises for most Cup wins all-time (Hendrick has 263 and Petty Enterprises has 268). Three of the team’s four drivers won in 2020 with the only winless driver being the now-retired Jimmie Johnson. Kyle Larson hopes to join his three teammates as the newest driver to win for Hendrick Motorsports while Alex Bowman, William Byron and Chase Elliott hope to better their career years set in 2020.

Kyle Larson, No. 5 Chevrolet

2021 Feb02 Larson 5 Main Image
Hendrick Motorsports

Experience: Seventh full-time season in NASCAR Cup Series
2020 stats: 34th in the final standings (4 races); 0 wins, 1 top fives, 3 top 10s
2020 final Fantasy Live ranking: 38th
2021 championship odds: 11-1

Outlook: The road back to the Cup Series has been a convoluted one, after his use of a racial slur last April left him suspended by NASCAR and fired from his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s quietly taken measures to better educate himself about racial inequality, and the terms of his reinstatement require that to continue. In the interim, he returned to his dirt-track roots and collected checkered flags by the bucket-load, jumping to Hendrick when the opportunity arose. He’ll be under a microscope this year for both his on- and off-track actions, but there’s little doubts to his abilities, which should help shake any stock-car rust.

Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet

2021 Feb02 2 Elliott 9 Main Image
Hendrick Motorsports

Experience: Sixth full-time season in NASCAR Cup Series
2020 stats: 1st in the final standings; 5 wins, 15 top fives, 22 top 10s
2020 final Fantasy Live ranking: 3rd
2021 championship odds: 7-1

Outlook: Life is good when you’re the champ. Not shockingly, HMS plans no changes to the core of the No. 9 team, which capped Elliott’s first title march with clutch victories on back-to-back weekends to close the season. Alan Gustafson remains as crew chief to pair with Elliott for their sixth consecutive season together. Elliott posted career-high numbers in several statistical categories in 2020, and the potential is there for more this season. Seven road courses are on the 2021 schedule, teeing up nicely for the team that has won the Cup Series’ last four race on the twisty circuits.

William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet

2021 Feb02 2 Byron 24 Main Image
Hendrick Motorsports

Experience: Fourth full-time season in NASCAR Cup Series
2020 stats: 14th in the final standings; 1 win, 4 top fives, 14 top 10s
2020 final Fantasy Live ranking: 14th
2021 championship odds: 35-1

Outlook: The 2020 campaign marked a breakout for Byron, who finally ticked the Cup Series win column with a victory in the regular-season finale at Daytona. But it was a measured breakout, since that triumph was one of just four top-five finishes all season. Enter Rudy Fugle as crew chief, taking the role from longtime signal-caller Chad Knaus, who moves to a managerial role in the HMS competition department. Fugle helped guide Byron’s burst onto the national-series scene five years ago with Kyle Busch Motorsports’ truck operation, but this marks his first Cup Series gig. Byron has gained valuable experience entering Year 4 with the No. 24 team, but the anticipation is still burbling for that banner season that’s yet to arrive.

Alex Bowman, No. 48 Chevrolet

2021 Feb02 Bowman 48 Main Image
Hendrick Motorsports

Experience: Sixth full-time season in NASCAR Cup Series
2020 stats: 6th in the final standings; 1 win, 6 top fives, 15 top 10s
2020 final Fantasy Live ranking: 9th
2021 championship odds: 35-1

Outlook: The adjustment phase of seeing someone not named Jimmie Johnson driving the No. 48 may be a long one, given the seven-time champion’s 19-year association with the car number and team. Seeing a familiar teammate take over may help to smooth that transition. Bowman’s task will be to help return the No. 48 to the Cup Series Playoffs after the team’s two straight heart-aching misses. He’ll be paired again with crew chief “Riddler” Greg Ives for a fourth consecutive season. The two pushed their way into the postseason’s Round of 8 last year; making the step to a multiple-race winner this year would bolster Bowman’s case to contend for more.

NASCAR.com 2021 team previews schedule

Jan. 18: 23XI Racing
Jan. 19: Trackhouse Racing Team
Jan. 20: Live Fast Motorsports
Jan. 21: Spire Motorsports
Jan. 22: JTG Daugherty Racing
Jan. 25: Front Row Motorsports
Jan. 26: Richard Petty Motorsports
Jan. 27: Roush Fenway Racing
Jan. 28: Wood Brothers Racing
Jan. 29: Richard Childress Racing
Jan. 30: Non-chartered and teams outside the top 30
Feb. 1: Chip Ganassi Racing
Feb. 2: Stewart-Haas Racing
Feb. 3: Joe Gibbs Racing
Feb. 4: Team Penske
Feb. 5: Hendrick Motorsports