NASCAR & Auto Racing

Hendrick Motorsports was ‘broken’ in 2018. Is the team done being dominant in NASCAR?

Jimmie Johnson, right, and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus split up after the 2018 season for the first time in Johnson’s lengthy NASCAR career.
Jimmie Johnson, right, and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus split up after the 2018 season for the first time in Johnson’s lengthy NASCAR career. AP

The trophy cases at Hendrick Motorsports are still as impressive as ever.

All those relics of past championships. All the silver, the gold, the crystals and just about any other decorative metal you can imagine. It’s all still there, a booming, silent reminder of all the legendary NASCAR drivers — Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., to name a few — who have walked through Hendrick’s doors.

Only, there’s some dust now.

Less reshuffling.

Fewer additions.

Hendrick’s 2018 season, easily the worst in the program’s proud history, produced three wins, all by rising star Chase Elliott.

That was the fewest in 25 years. The last time Hendrick mustered fewer than three wins in a season was all the way back in 1993 — the first year of Jeff Gordon’s now Hall of Fame-career.

So, is it time to declare Hendrick Motorsports dead, finally finished as a dominant NASCAR power?

If you listen to the people inside the building, the ones who actually know what went wrong, not hardly.

‘Last year was just harder’

So what exactly did go awry for HMS in 2018?

Truth be told, a number of things avalanched on top of each other. But it makes more sense to break down each tribulation individually than to try to unpack everything at once.

First, and most obvious, were the departures of veteran drivers. Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne, two consistent winners for Hendrick, both left at the conclusion of the 2017 season — Earnhardt to retirement, Kahne to Leavine Family Racing (and now retirement). That meant Xfinity Series champion William Byron, a then-20-year-old Charlotte native, and former Earnhardt replacement driver Alex Bowman were both seeing their first substantial seat time.

Making the jump to the Cup level would be difficult for anyone, and that’s not including the constant pressure and barrage of media attention those two faced. Byron especially faced comparisons to Gordon, the driver he replaced in the famous No. 24 car.

“Everybody is trying to anoint you as somebody that you haven’t even shown or really told yourself that you are, so I think that’s the thing that I looked at,” Byron said at Hendrick’s preseason media event in January. “Last year was just harder.”

Both Byron and Bowman improved over the course of the year, to the point that Byron won Rookie of the Year and Bowman finished with three top-fives. But the learning curve was evident.

Then there was the matter of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which Hendrick debuted in 2018 along with NASCAR’s other Chevy teams. A season-opening Daytona 500 win by Austin Dillon in February was a nice introduction for the Camaro at the Cup level ... except, well, that was it.

Chevy, via Elliott, wouldn’t win again until August, some six months later.

“I can’t say (us struggling) was all the race car,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s former crew chief who switched to Byron’s No. 24 team this offseason. “I can say it was a contributor, but I can’t put a percentage point on it.”

‘We’re going to mix all you guys up’

Lastly, and perhaps the thing that most flew under the radar, was the massive organizational undertaking at Hendrick specifically.

The team completely changed the way it operated last season, as HMS essentially combined the workspaces for all four of its Cup teams under one roof. That meant shifting the routines, and the spaces, that more than 200 employees had come to know and feel comfortable in.

“From a company standpoint, there’s a lot of things that we did and took on that were really monumental tasks that we shouldn’t have tried to do all at one time,” Knaus said. “We combined all of our teams, combined all of our resources. Really took all of the talent that we had, put it into a big pile, and said, ‘OK, this guy’s going to handle our mechanical side, this guy’s going to handle our fabrication side.’ We’re going to use these procedures ... and we’re going to combine the building so this guy’s work space is put into a new work space and this guy’s is put into another.

“Basically we took right at 220-some people and pit crews and said, ‘All right, we’re going to mix all you guys up and establish new procedures.’

“That’s a huge shift.”

The change was aimed at the future. By putting all four Cup teams in one building, the hope was that collaboration, sharing of resources, and ease of communication would all be better.

But Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, also explained some of the unintended consequences of that reorganization, including something so common sense it’s almost natural to overlook.

“It’s time,” Gustafson said. “If I’m spending time in organizational meetings, I’m not spending time on car performance.”

“So yeah, I certainly think that impacted us, and it wasn’t an easy thing. But you have to have some short-term losses at times to get long-term gains.”

‘Where things ended last year, change was needed’

At least from the outside, the clearest indicator of Hendrick’s drop-off came from Johnson, seven times the Cup Series champion.

For the first time since he began facing full-time at NASCAR’s highest level 17 years ago, Johnson finished the year without a single win. Previously he had called the 2017 season, when he won three races but failed to advance to the Championship 4, his most trying professional season.

Then came 2018 ... and afterward, the recognition that something required fixing.

“Where things have been and where things ended last year, change was needed,” Johnson said at the team’s preseason media event. “So we’re refreshed to know that we made the changes, and we’re starting over.”

This offseason, that change came in bundles for Johnson. He replaced his only ever sponsor, Lowe’s, with Ally, and simultaneously exchanged his classic blue-and-white paint scheme for one with black, pink, and purple. More than that, though, he and Knaus, his crew chief for all seven titles, separated. Knaus will work with Byron and the No. 24 team, while Kevin Meendering replaces Knaus on the No. 48.

“It was tough on everybody. I’m a very sore loser, and (Jimmie’s) only about a half a step better than I am, so it’s difficult,” Knaus said of the team’s struggles in 2018. “We wear our emotions on our sleeves, so it can be challenging at times, but the thing is, we battled through it together and you just kind of deal with it.

“Like, this is the best we’ve got right now.”

Of course Johnson wasn’t the only Hendrick car struggling, but his past accomplishments meant the spotlight on Johnson was brighter than others. Even with a troublesome new vehicle, a complete organizational overhaul and being thrust into a new role as the team’s elder statesman — Byron was 20, Elliott 22, and Bowman 25 compared with Johnson at 43 — the former Cup Series champion still managed to qualify for the playoffs.

And once Johnson qualified, his desire to get back to Victory Lane reached a boiling point. In Charlotte Motor Speedway’s inaugural Bank of America ROVAL 400 in September, Johnson collided with Martin Truex Jr. on the last lap of the race, costing them both a win and costing himself a spot in the next round of the playoffs.

IMG_BOFA400_09.JPG_3_1_H3EHQETP_L421110078.JPG
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, left, slides sideways next to driver Martin Truex Jr., right, in the final turn of the Bank of America ROVALL 400 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, NC on Sunday, September 30, 2018. Johnson would cause Truex Jr., who was the leader to wreck as well allowing driver Ryan Blaney to take the checkered flag for the win. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Afterward, Johnson said, “I was just going for the win. Wins are so important. And the veteran could have taken a safe route and didn’t, and unfortunately took us out of the playoffs.”

But in 2019, there is hope — internally, but also externally from fans and the media — that Johnson and his teammates will be able to do what so eluded Johnson last season:

Win.

‘Don’t count us out — do not’

Just as Hendrick’s issues in 2018 were threefold, so too are its reasons for optimism heading into 2019.

The first of those is Elliott, plain and simple. The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott is one of the sport’s brightest stars, and finally had his breakthrough season last year with his first three Cup Series victories. On top of being named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Elliott currently has the fourth-best odds of winning the 2019 title, per Sportsbook, behind 2018 finalists Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.

“I’m expecting Chase to be a real contender for the championship,” Earnhardt said at a media event in early December. “I think Chevy as a whole is going to be better, and I think that’s great for Chase, because he’s already pretty good.”

IMG_Chase_Elliott_5_1_SUEUEK4V_L436222724.JPG
Chase Elliott won the first three NASCAR Cup Series races of his career during the 2018 season, setting him up to compete for a championship in 2019. Colin E. Braley AP

But Elliott only makes up one-fourth of Hendrick’s team, and there are reasons to believe each of the team’s other three drivers will also see an uptick in 2019.

Byron and Bowman are both a year into their Hendrick tenures, giving them a better idea of what to expect. And as Byron pointed out, having a full offseason to digest what you learned and make adjustments is far more helpful than trying to make changes on the fly in-season.

“It’s hard to change much when you’re at the track, so getting a couple of months to work on everything, it’s going to be a lot different,” Byron said. “Once you got behind, it’s kind of hard to catch up. There was a lot of improvement toward the end of the year with Chase winning races, so I don’t see really any reason why we can’t do that.”

Then there’s the final reason to believe Hendrick can make a comeback in 2019, and while it particularly pertains to Johnson, it’s something that will drastically effect every team next season: the new rules package for 2019, which dramatically changes the cars’ aerodynamics in an effort to promote closer racing.

Why does that especially matter for Johnson? Because even for all the team’s struggles in 2018, now they don’t necessarily have to find a solution.

“The challenging part was to have everyone try so hard and not get the results. Unfortunately, that kept fueling the anger and the fire we had, and kind of led to the change (from Chad to Kevin) taking place,” Johnson said. “I’ve never tried so hard — same for Chad, I’ve never seen him work so hard. We just couldn’t make it work. Something was broken with us. That was the hard reality to deal with.”

Now do you know what was broken?

“Nope,” Johnson added, “and then the rules have completely changed, so we won’t really have any closure on it. We’re just off to our next project.”

For 2019, that means trying to build Hendrick back to the dominant NASCAR power it has been for the past 25 years. It means proving that Johnson isn’t too old, that Byron and Bowman aren’t too young, and that Elliott’s career season was no fluke.

Inside the building, there is a sense that Hendrick Motorsports will absolutely get their operation turned around this year.

So, Johnson’s message to the doubters who want to write HMS off for good?

“Don’t count us out,” he said. “Do not. This place was built on winning, and it’s not going anywhere.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.


Support my work with a digital subscription

SUBSCRIBE TODAY
  Comments