There are many changes at Hendrick Motorsports this season, some more obvious than others.
The most apparent in the organization’s driver lineup in the Monster Energy Cup Series, of course.
Alex Bowman takes over the No. 88 Chevrolet on a full-time basis, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has stepped away from full-time competition and has joined NBC Sports’ NASCAR broadcasts.
Rookie William Byron replaced Kasey Kahne and now drives the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet while Chase Elliott, who has driven the No. 24 the past two seasons, now drives the No. 9 Chevrolet, a number related to his family’s racing heritage.
The group of younger drivers is led by seven-time Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson and the combination is something team owner Rick Hendrick has found very rewarding.
“This has been so much fun for me. I mean, these young guys, I mean, I’m kind of reliving (Jeff) Gordon with his little pencil mustache,” Hendrick said after Bowman won the pole for the Daytona 500.
“I tell these guys, I said, ‘You know when I met Gordon, he had a briefcase with a stock car magazine and a GameBoy. That was it.’
“But to see the excitement with the team, the way they’re working together, it’s just a lot of fun. Jimmie taking the lead role and giving these guys, telling them this is what you need to expect out of the car.”
A rejuvenated Hendrick Motorsports
The change seems to have rejuvenated the Hendrick organization after what was a difficult season. Johnson won three races and Kahne one but none of the Hendrick drivers advanced to the Championship 4 at Homestead with an opportunity to win the championship.
The internal performance struggles led to some competition changes within HMS – something fans would not necessary be able to detect from the outside.
Among them: Changing over from the Chevrolet SS to Camaro ZL1 body style on the cars and the restructuring of its competition department into a “one-team” concept.
Most recently, HMS operated under two groups – the Nos. 48 and 88 teams in one and the Nos. 24 and 5 in another.
“I give (team president) Marshall Carlson and the crew chiefs all the credit – we want to live together, we want to be in one area, we want to have the best guys setting up the plate, building all the cars the same, working in the wind tunnel and sharing,” Hendrick said.
“I think so far when everybody co-signed the note, when they had an opportunity, Chad (Knaus), Greg (Ives), Alan (Gustafson), everybody had an opportunity to put their two cents in, and that’s the way we designed and built it.
“I’m excited about it. I think when you see the guys in the garage, they’re working together. They’re all working on the cars together. And so it’s kind of tearing down the walls of one team versus the other team.”
It’s very early, but Sunday’s qualifying for the Daytona 500 illustrated the results quite well. All four HMS cars advanced to the final round of qualifying and Bowman won the pole.
“In all of my years in this sport and my company, we have never worked this close together, and it's something I've been wanting to see,” Hendrick said. “So, the proof is going to be when we get down to the playoffs.
“There’s some awful good teams in that garage area. There’s some awful good cars that are not going to be in the playoffs. But I think we’re just going to get better and stronger.”