NASCAR & Auto Racing

A Rick Hendrick driver didn’t win the Coca-Cola 600 but team showed hope for future

Charlotte native William Byron wins pole for Coca-Cola 600

Charlotte native William Byron won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 on Thursday, May 23, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, NC. Byron is the youngest pole winner for the race.
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Charlotte native William Byron won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 on Thursday, May 23, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, NC. Byron is the youngest pole winner for the race.

Sunday night’s 17th caution flag at the Coca-Cola 600 proved to be a blessing in disguise for Hendrick Motorsports.

With 10 laps left to go, Brad Keselowski rammed the wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway and damaged the right rear of his car. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson went speeding by at the bottom of the track, and teammate William Byron narrowly missed the tail of Keselowski’s No. 2 car as it drifted down to pit road.

The last caution of the five-hour race set up the night’s most dramatic moment: a wild five-lap sprint to the finish. When the green flag fell on the restart, all four Hendrick drivers — Johnson, Byron, Chase Elliot and Alex Bowman — were in the Top 15. At the end, they seized four spots in the Top 10.

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On Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. won the 60th Coca-Cola 600. But it was the Hendrick drivers who stole the show. In addition to Elliott’s fourth-place finish, Alex Bowman slid his way into seventh; Johnson finished eighth and Byron took the checkered flag in ninth.

Hendrick racing as a whole has struggled over the last two years; however, recently, the team has started to hit its stride. Bowman finished second for three consecutive races leading up to the Charlotte race. Elliott won at Talladega. Byron was the youngest pole-sitter in Coca-Cola 600 history.

Johnson, the veteran of the group, has been more inconsistent. He finished 33rd in Talladega, had 24th place finishes at Atlanta and Martinsville, and finished fifth at Texas.

Although Johnson has the more wins at the 600 than any other active driver, he has not won a race in close to two years. His last win was June 2017 at Dover.

With his contract up in 2020, the veteran driver’s future is uncertain: Does he stay in the sport or call it quits after 19 years? For now, his objective is simple.

“Win, win, win,” Johnson said.

His struggles have set off a generational change at the top of his racing team. Elliott now has six top 10 finishes, and his potential to be a NASCAR super star like his father, Bill, showed on Sunday night. The 23-year-old led for 43 laps of the 600-mile race.

“The past couple weeks, I feel like (Hendrick Motorsports) have been strong,” Elliott said. “Just need to close and finish hard in those last hundred laps. I feel like that’s been my issue and our issue as a team.”

Byron, a Charlotte native, came into the race as a hometown favorite, and at the beginning, it looked like the young pole-sitter might carry the night. He led for 31 laps. But as time passed, Byron started to fall back. “I expected the track to come to us when nighttime came, and it just didn’t really,” Byron said.

As for Bowman, the 26-year-old has been a wild card, hoping to mirror NASCAR greats by capping off his three consecutive runner-up finishes with a win at Charlotte. Although Bowman didn’t cross first, he did lead for eight laps and was in hopeful spirits at the end of the race because of the team’s growth.

“It’s huge,” Bowman said. “I was a little late to the party with running better, but it says a lot about the 650 people that work for HMS, working their butts off. I’m not giving up, and we’re just going to continue getting better and better.”

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