This week is the official 2018 NASCAR Media Week in Charlotte as it quote on quote opens the book on the upcoming season. Speaking of opening up a new book, that’s exactly what Hendrick Motorsports is doing for the 2018 season. Gone are veterans like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. All three have departed over the last two seasons, two of which retiring from the sport all together.
In is the youth movement. Replacing those big names are Chase Elliott (3rd season), William Byron (Rookie) and Alex Bowman (81 career Cup starts). None of that trio of drivers have ever tasted victory lane in a points paying Cup race.
With Jimmie Johnson coming off of career low numbers, what can we expect out of HMS for 2018?
Does Johnson Rebound After Career Lows From 2017?
It’s goes without saying, but Jimmie Johnson is by far the leader of the clubhouse with Hendrick Motorsports now. While the California native has seven Cup titles and 83 wins to his credit, he’s always played 1A, 1B and 1C with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But, Gordon officially retired after the 2015 season, but then came back in select starts in 2016 filling in for an injured Earnhardt Jr. Then, Earnhardt came back for his last hurrah in 2017, as despite the wide range in career stats between the two, Earnhardt always got far more attention than ever Johnson did.
Now, the magnifying glass is squarely on Johnson with both the other drivers having since retired from the sport.
How does he rebound in 2018 coming off of a career worst season in 2017? How does he do so without being able to really bounce setup ideas off his teammates? After all, the three other teammates have combined to make just 159 career Cup starts.
2017 was frustrating for Johnson. He had just three victories, the worst since having only two in 2011. He had at least four wins in 12 of the previous 13 seasons prior to that. He also had just four total top five finishes, 11 top 10’s and 217 total laps led. All were career lows for him.
With the new lower downforce car last season, Johnson who normally likes a loose handling car, struggled to grasp this one. They spun out by themselves numerous times and were completely non factors all season long.
Can they correct that in 2018 with very little feedback coming from his teammates, especially with a completely new car from Chevrolet, or does Johnson’s slide continue?
Did Playoff Run Last Year Stamp Elliott As 2018 Title Contender?
Is this the breakout season that we’ve all been waiting for out of Chase Elliott? The last two years, he’s won the pole for the season opening Daytona 500 and has had several breakout moments. Unfortunately, he’s yet to land in victory lane. He improved from 10 top five finishes in his rookie season of 2016 to 12 last year. He also went up from 17 top 10’s to 21 as well. But, prior to the playoffs last year, he was really an after thought. He had just six top five finishes throughout the entire 26 race regular season. Out of the last 11 races of the regular season, he had just one top five effort. But, they turned it on when it counted and really if not for that incident with Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, he could have won the championship.
He had three runner-ups in the first four races of the playoffs, including a heartbreaking second place run at Dover. In fact, he had four runner-ups in the 10 playoff races in general to go along with seven top 10 finishes, six of which being inside the top five. Again, you go back to Martinsville where he was leading in the final laps but was crashed out and finished 27th. Take that move away, he finished eighth at Texas and second at Phoenix, and he moves onto Homestead.
He raced far more aggressive in the playoffs and if he can continue that trends for 2018, I have no doubt that Elliott in the new No. 9 will get to victory lane and challenge for the championship.
Big Shoes To Fill For Bowman, Does Betting On Himself Pay Off?
This isn’t the first time that Alex Bowman has filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He did so for 10 races in 2016 when Earnhardt was injured and in the Clash last year at Daytona. But, this is the first time where the ride is actually his now. Earnhardt, has since retired, leaving the No. 88 Chevrolet open for the first time in over a decade. Bowman, was tabbed as his replacement.
But, those a big shoes to fill.
While Earnhardt only won nine times in that car, his name and stature alone is hard to replace. Bowman is going to get fans from Earnhardt Nation just for driving that car. Like it or not, this is how it works in NASCAR.
See, everyone kept saying how talented and deserving of a top ride Bowman was. He ran full-time in 2014 with BK Racing and finished 35th in points. The next year, he raced with Tommy Baldwin Racing full-time and came home 33rd in points. He saw his Cup career was going nowhere so he decided to turn down full-time rides in any NASCAR series with underfunded teams and sign on as a test driver for HMS. But, would that move really pay off?
It ended up doing so as the search for Earnhardt’s replacement didn’t get too far away from HMS.
Now, what can he do with a top ride? How long will HMS give him to try?
Realistic Expectations For Byron
Most, including myself, didn’t think William Byron was honestly ready to move up to a full-time Cup ride yet. Yes, he may have just won the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship last season. But, he has never spent more than one year in each of the NASCAR feeder series’. While Byron won seven times in his rookie campaign in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2016, he was a blown motor at Phoenix away from winning that title. Instead of coming back, he was signed by HMS as a development driver and put with JR Motorsports in the XFINITY Series. It didn’t take him long there to gain success as he won at Daytona and Indy of all places en route to the 2017 championship.
Yes, he’s a rising star and the real deal. Yes, he should have two titles in two seasons. But, Byron has a total of 57 NASCAR starts under his belt. Throw in his championship winning year in the K&N Series in 2015, and he has 77 starts in a stock car, and that’s even including ARCA.
Is that enough to race full-time at the Cup level, let alone in such an iconic car like the No. 24 Chevrolet?
Despite being in the hunt to win three straight championships the last three years in three different NASCAR divisions, can he really contend for a title in Cup in his rookie season? What are his realistic expectations?
I think they have to be around what Elliott’s was in 2016. 10 Top five finishes and 17 top 10’s would be a very successful season for Byron in his first year in Cup. But, anything less shouldn’t be frowned upon either.
As Hendrick gets younger, it’s time for a new identity. That means changing up some car numbers. For the first time in team history, the No. 5 won’t be run. Also, Chase Elliott moves away from the shadow of the No. 24 and into his family number the No. 9, the same one his dad drove. Also, Elliott drove the No. 9 in the XFINITY Series and even won a championship.
Byron, moves to the No. 24 now, while Bowman will slide in the No. 88. Johnson, remains in the No. 48.
It’s a new year and new identity for Hendrick.