What will be the impact of the big changes at Hendrick Motorsports?
A look at what we can expect to see from Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 and beyond.
Rick Hendrick has never been afraid of change, but it’s hard to imagine an offseason when his race teams have gone through more changes than this offseason. Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time champion and certainly one of the greatest drivers of all time has retired, Chad Knaus, the only crew chief that’s never missed the NASCAR playoffs will no longer be on top of the pit box, and some dirt-track hotshot named Larson is climbing behind the wheel of the iconic No. 5 car in 2021. Oh, and let’s not forget that the guys at Hendrick will be expanding their trophy case in the offseason to make room Chase Elliott’s championship trophy. With everything going on, what can we expect from Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) in 2021 and beyond?
Let’s start with the promotion of Chad Knaus. That’s right, his new role is considered a promotion. Instead of calling the shots for one of the four HMS teams, he will be influencing all of the teams at HMS in his new role as Vice President of Competition. Chad may not be making the calls for two tires or four tires, but his fingerprints will be all over the HMS cars, and he may ultimately have more impact at HMS now than when he was winning seven championships with Jimmie Johnson. In his new role, Chad will be overseeing technical development, engineering, fabrication and other aspects of the day-to-day operations at Hendrick. These responsibilities match up perfectly with Chad’s talents, and there may never be a better marriage of the “right person in the right job” than Chad Knaus and his new role at Hendrick. If you think about these new responsibilities, “technical development, engineering and fabrication” and then look at Chad’s history of, how shall I say this, “operating in the gray area of the rulebook”, it seems like the perfect recipe for fast cars, and headaches for the NASCAR inspectors. Chad Knaus is kind of the “mad scientist” of the NASCAR garage area, and putting him in this role is just giving the mad scientist a bigger and better laboratory to work in, so expect big, and innovative, things from the Hendrick stable this year.
In addition to Chad’s new role, they have a championship to celebrate this offseason, thanks to Chase Elliott. HMS hasn’t had a chance to celebrate a championship since 2016. That may not seem like a long time, but the last time HMS had a drought that long, was in 2006, when Jimmie won his first championship. Don’t underestimate the confidence that comes with winning this year’s championship, not just for the Chase Elliott crew, but for the entire organization. HMS had to feel like they were slipping behind a little bit when Joe Gibbs Racing had won two of the last three championships, especially when the 2019 Championship Four included three entries from the Joe Gibbs stable. With the 2020 championship coming back to the Hendrick garage, the combination of talent, momentum and confidence could be deadly for the competition in 2021.
As David Pearson once said “You can’t just throw a brick in the driver’s seat and expect to win races”, so let’s take a look at the drivers at HMS. This is a YOUNG group of drivers, and that’s one of the most overlooked aspects of HMS. Let’s compare the current HMS drivers and see how they stack up against Jimmie Johnson at the same age.
People forget that Jimmie Johnson didn’t get his first win until he was 26 years old, and didn’t win his first championship until he was 31.Just how young are these guys? Well, Alex Bowman is the elder statesman among the HMS drivers, and he’s only 28 years old! This is a young group, whose talent level is off the charts, but don’t confuse their youth with lack of experience, even the youngster of the group, William Byron, has three full seasons of Cup experience under his belt. Byron has been criticized for his lack of wins, but it’s easily forgotten that he’s only 23 years old. Even Jeff Gordon, who was known as “Boy Wonder” when he burst on the scene in 1994, was only a couple of months shy of his 23rd birthday when he got his first win, so Byron’s stats don’t look that much different than Gordon’s at the same point in their career. Then we have Chase Elliot, the reigning NASCAR champion. He comes from a NASCAR pedigree, being the son of NASCAR Champion, Bill Elliott. He practically grew up in the garage and behind the wheel. Still, despite his pedigree and obvious talent level, it took some experience and maturity for him to begin to show his full potential. Keep in mind that it was earlier this year that Chase was giving away victories through poor driving decisions. Remember the spring race at Bristol when he drove into a corner too hard, made contact with Joey Logano and cost himself a win? How about Darlington when he was protecting a lead late in the race and for some reason, decided to adjust his line and run the low line through turns three and four, which allowed Martin Truex, Jr. to close the gap on him, ultimately leading to contact between the two on the following lap, and another Chase Elliott victory slipped away. These kind of mistakes are typical of a young driver, but look for these to disappear as Chase seems to be gaining the experience and maturity to avoid such costly mistakes. Oh, and one more thing that works in Chase Elliott’s favor, as if being young, talented, and in top notch equipment isn’t enough, the NASCAR schedule highly favors him in 2021, with a total of 6 Road Courses on the schedule. Chase is the reigning road course king right now, and there’s really not anyone close to matching his prowess when drivers have to make the car turn both to the right and the left. Finally, this article would not be complete without discussing Kyle Larson. After being suspended by NASCAR and losing his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing for making an inappropriate comment into an open mic, Larson spent most of 2020 setting the dirt world on fire and establishing himself as one of the most talented drivers in any form of motorsports. Larson made a habit of winning, or at least being highly competitive, while driving what many consider to be second-tier equipment at Chip Ganasi racing. Larson is the proverbial guy that can drive anything with four tires and a steering wheel, and putting him in top notch equipment is going to give him the ultimate opportunity to showcase his talent.
All in all, the future is very bright at Hendrick Motorsports. Look for big things from this group in 2021 and beyond, and don’t be surprised if the Championship Four next year looks a Hendrick company picnic with multiple drivers from the Hendrick camp making it to the Championship Round next year.
About the author: Tom Willoughby is motorsports enthusiast and lifelong fan of NASCAR and dirt track racing. He also contributes to, and makes guest appearances on the Racing Refresh podcast.