Pair of Hendrick drivers face NASCAR playoff elimination

Only two races into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, the prospect of an all-Hendrick Motorsports Championship 4 already seems very unlikely.

Pair of Hendrick drivers face NASCAR playoff elimination
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In fact, Hendrick is in serious danger of having two of its four drivers bounced from the playoffs at the conclusion of the first round.

Heading into Saturday night’s cutoff race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, HMS drivers Alex Bowman and William Byron both face elimination from further title contention.

Bowman, 28, is currently tied with Kurt Busch in points but would lose a tiebreaker and sits 14th in the playoff grid. Byron is in a much more precarious position in 15th and 18 points behind the cutoff.

Together, the two drivers have four wins between them – part of the 11 victories HMS drivers accumulated in the 26-race regular season.

It’s difficult to imagine multiple early exits from the playoffs for Hendrick drivers, especially considering the organization’s dominance through the summer months.

At one point, Hendrick drivers won six consecutive races and seven of eight. Kyle Larson’s scored Hendrick’s most recent win, Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

Struggling to make ground

This past weekend’s race at Richmond (Va.) Raceway did little to improve either Bowman or Byron’s playoff standing. Bowman cracked the top-10 late in Stage 2 but fell a lap down in the final stage and ended up 12th.

“We were really good at the end of Stage 2. We didn’t make any adjustments and we were really bad at the beginning of Stage 3,” Bowman said. “We just had a set of tires that didn’t agree with our race car and got a lap down there. It’s hard to overcome that.

“Bummer for all of our guys. I feel like we did a good job throughout the course of the race at getting our car better from where we started. We just didn’t end where we needed to end. On the bubble going into Bristol, but just have to go do my job and hopefully we have a fast (car) there and go get the job done.”

Bowman has a hit-or-miss record at Bristol. He has completed all the laps in the race only twice in 10 starts on the concrete track. When he has, however, he finished fifth and eighth.

After wrecking out of the playoff opener at Darlington, S.C., Byron struggled throughout the entire race at Richmond, starting 14th and finishing 19th, two laps down.

“We were just really bad. We finished seventh here in the spring and felt like we had something decent,” Byron said. “We tweaked some stuff to try and get a little better. I think the best we got was we got to 11th one time.”

Going for the win

Byron, 23, said his approach to this weekend’s Bristol race is pretty straightforward.

“Just try to race hard and see if we can win it. That’s pretty much what we probably have to do,” he said. “Bristol is an OK track for me. I feel like we’ll have a much better car there. We just have to get there and race as hard as we can.”

In six starts on the Bristol concrete track, Byron has just one top-10 finish and has never led a lap. He wrecked out of the Bristol Night Race one year ago and finished 38th.

Of course, if either Bowman or Byron were to win at Bristol, they would automatically advance to the Round of 12, regardless of their points position.

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