I wrote earlier in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, before it even begun actually, that the 2018 year could be a trying one for Hendrick Motorsports. Gone is Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Three veterans of the sport. Left for this year was Jimmie Johnson, a seven time champion but one coming off of his worst statistical year of his career and three drivers with zero combined wins on the Cup level. One, has literally just two full seasons coming through the NASCAR ladder and another without having a full time ride in a few years as well. With a brand new car for Chevrolet in 2018, it would likely be a rebuilding year for them.
Well, as we’ve made our way to the halfway point of the season, Hendrick is showing that they’re really not that close to winning races yet. Despite that, three of their four drivers are sitting squarely on the playoff bubble while a fourth is on the outside looking in but still within striking distance.
The bottom three of the playoff standings after 18 of 36 races this season are Jimmie Johnson (+54), Chase Elliott (+37) and Alex Bowman (+19). Johnson, is 35 points behind Ryan Blaney for 13th while Elliott and Bowman are 52 and 70 points out respectively themselves. That means in all likelihood, all three of these drivers are battling Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-19), Paul Menard (-55), Ryan Newman (-94), Daniel Suarez (-108) and William Byron (-108) for those final few wildcard spots.
That’s is if someone other than these drivers doesn’t win a race between now and Indianapolis.
Watkins Glen is a wildcard but everywhere else, it’s hard to bet against Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer right now. They’ve combined to win all 15 races that weren’t contested on a restrictor plate track this year. But, if someone outside of the top 16 in the current points standings does win between now and Indy, then that final bubble spot moves up one, meaning one of the Hendrick cars are then out.
At the moment, Bowman is actually leading the charge for them. Heading into Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Kentucky Speedway he’s had three straight top 10 finishes in his No. 88 Chevrolet. He scored enough stage points last Saturday night in Daytona to negate Stenhouse Jr. two stage wins and remain on the good side heading into the second half of the season. Now, all he needs to do is keep it up.
Johnson, hasn’t hasn’t scored a top 10 finish since and eighth place run at Pocono. That’s over a month ago. Since late April, he’s had just one top five finish, a fifth place finish at Charlotte. Elliott, has had just one top five finish since the Month of May began and only three top 10’s in that same time frame. Byron, while looking racy at Daytona hasn’t had a top 10 finish since early April in Texas. That’s actually his best finish of the year which was a 10th place result.
On top of all of that, 5,140 laps have been run in 2018 and Hendrick drivers have only led 140 of them. Bowman, is once again leading the charge in that category with 66 laps turned out front. That ranks 14th best in the series. Byron, is next best with 43 circuits led while Elliott and Johnson have led 19 and 12 laps respectively. Michael McDowell with Front Row Motorsports and Kasey Kahne with Leavine Family Racing have led more laps than Elliott and Johnson in 2018.
What’s that say.
So, Hendrick is likely going to remain on those bubble spots as they have to do all they can to just earn stage points and finish in the top 15. They’ll then have to root for the “Big 4” to keep winning.