A surprising turn of events occurred during NASCAR’s qualifying session on Friday evening. Hendrick Motorsports managed a 1-2-3 sweep to start off Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500. Not only were there surprises for all the right reasons, but also due to the disappointments that transpired. Notably, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski all qualified outside the top ten. Jimmie Johnson’s pole is his first since 2016, which is a bizarre thought for a seven time champion. Nonetheless, Johnson along with William Byron, and Chase Elliot will need to be at their best tomorrow to end their slow start to the 2019 season.
Hendricks Motorsports experienced a horrid 2018 season. Chase Elliott led the way with a respectable three wins on the season and was amongst the challengers in the Playoffs; however, the rest of the team especially Jimmie Johnson struggled to maintain any level of consistency during the season. Johnson only managed two top five finishes. Bowman bested Johnson with three, though neither won a race. For a team with such a terrific history that is noteworthy.
Change was perhaps a significant reason behind the struggles in 2018. Drivers were swapping crew chiefs. Chase Elliott made the move to the 9 car with William Byron taking over the 24 car. Hendrick Motorsports was also immediately on the back foot following the regulations that took place following the 2016 season forcing teams to revisit their development of key parts.
Looking onto the start of this season, The Hendrick drivers have continued the trend of not being a top competitor week in and week out. Chase Elliott is the only driver with a top five finish through the first six races of the season. Jimmie Johnson was able to muster a couple of top ten finishes, but he has not been in line to compete for a win.
Johnson is spending his first season without Crew Chief, Chad Knaus in 17 years. The two formed a close bond and experienced unprecedented success from 2006-2010 seeing five titles in as many years. Times change, however, and Jimmie Johnson is now entering the twilight of his career. He may have the skill set to compete for wins, but it appears the car just hasn’t had the speed to compete with Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing.
This weekend’s qualifying session left many pondering the unexpected 1-2-3 finish for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver during Friday’s practice session and would have felt confident entering into qualifying. Yet, William Byron starting on the front row signifies that the entire Hendrick team had been making some significant adjustments behind the scenes heading into this weekend.
This is not to say there was no controversy surrounding the qualifying session. Clint Bowyer, for example, was enraged by the way that NASCAR handled the change for rules regarding the blocking of pit road. Stewart-Hass driver, Matt Weaver of Autoweek.com, broke down the Bowyer situation. Clint was quoted as saying,
“I’m pissed off.. been doing this for years and years and years. This is stupid.”
Bowyer’s anger is understandable. He was knocked out in the first round require the best from Bowyer to drive up through the field. Ever since NASCAR made the switch the knockout qualifying, it has always had a difficult time of managing the time allotted to each round along with the large numbers of cars trying to get out onto the track all while the pavement undergoes changes throughout the session.
The only Hendrick driver that had a tough time during qualifying was Alex Bowman, who hit the wall during the first round, which led in part to Bowyer’s frustration concerning their handling of the procedure.
Jimmie Johnson, William Byron, and Chase Elliott all have a point to prove come the green flag in Texas. Johnson perhaps more than the other three. The veteran driver so desperately wants to end his 65 race winless drought. There needs to be a change from the traditional winners from Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. With that said, Denny Hamlin topped the final practice speed chart and looks to be a serious threat to Johnson’s hopes of getting the win.
Hendrick has had to throw caution to the wind in some respects this season. The entire team cannot continue to be passive in their approach like 2018. Johnson told the media,
“We know and knowledge that what we were trying last year didn’t work”
As a whole, the Hendrick drivers should be in the discussion along side Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and the Penske team. The qualifying controversy, again, should take nothing away from the performance of Johnson. He has shown the speed that puts him in discussion as one of the favorites to win the race. While Sunday’s race provides the perfect opportunity to start a consistent string of strong finishes, Johnson and his teammates will need to hope that their pace from Friday will manifest itself into a win on Sunday.
Photo Credit-Unsplash: Tim Trad