For the second week in a row, Hendrick Motorsports had three drivers finish inside the top ten. Kansas Speedway was a captivating race filled with tight racing and classic late race tension. Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Camaro, was looking to notch his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win only to be run down by a determined Brad Keselowski. Although Bowman failed to win, his pace along with Chase Elliott, who finished fourth, were consistently competitive as they combined to lead 108 of the 271 laps. The recent trend of top ten finishes represents a turning point for the team that has struggled for the past few seasons.
Saturday night’s race was a much needed refresh for the traditional mile and 1/2 circuits. Races far too often lacked the side by side racing and close finishes that made NASCAR so popular. Instead, 3.00 or 4.00 second leads became the norm. There simply was no need to tune in on a weekly basis. The consolidation of power amongst the race teams also lent to a decrease of competition. Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing became regulars in Victory Lane. Roush Fenway Racing, Richard Childress Racing, and Hendrick Motorsports drifted into obscurity.
The new rules package established for the 2019 season has really come into its own over the past couple of weeks. Thankfully, Kansas Speedway was already widely regarded as an oval that produces great racing year after year. For a sport where fans have asked for more short track and road course racing, it is nice to see a traditional oval come through with an exciting experience.
Hendrick Motorsports stood out for all the wrong reasons when NASCAR originally moved to the 2017 rules package, which further reduced downforce from the 2,000 pounds in 2016, the last time Jimmie Johnson won the Championship, to 1500 pounds in 2017. However, the changes in rules packages over the course of the past two seasons could not be at fault for all of the troubles that plagued such a storied racing team.
Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both retired from NASCAR in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Jimmie Johnson, who is now 43 years old, was considered to be casualty of the continued adjustments from the rules packages, which did not suit Johnson’s preference for loose cars. The introduction of young talent like Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, and William Byron was never going to result in short term gain. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski are too seasoned and talented to roll over for young tenacious drivers.
The 2019 NASCAR season did not get off to a promising start for Hendrick Motorsports. The team looked to be on the back foot and was reeling after back-to-back horrendous races at Atlanta and Las Vegas. Chase Elliott started a slight spark after his first win of the season at Talladega, but the fire was lit by Alex Bowman.
Bowman has finished second for three consecutive races, which started after the 1-2 finish at Talladega. He has come into his own over the past weeks and has taken the baton for the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization. Even though he has yet to nab his first win, the experience he has gained during this stretch will be invaluable for his career. In an interview with Jamie Little of Fox Sports following the Kansas race, he expressed his disappointment,
“I just made some bad decisions, and never really should have given the 2 car [Keselowski] a chance there…”
However, Bowman went on to point out just how far Hendrick Motorsports has come since the beginning of the 2019 season,
“I’m really proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports. Our race cars are so much better than what we started the year with.”
The All-Star break could not have come at a worse time for Hendrick Motorsports. The momentum that has developed within the organization is palpable, and the drivers must be itching to continue their impressive runs.
There is a long way to go for Hendrick Motorsport to achieve the coveted Championship. The organization is still in a period of transition as William Byron and Chase Elliott are still under 24 years old. Yet, despite this challenge, Hendrick Motorsports has an opportunity to lead with the next generation of drivers over the next ten years. While Jimmie Johnson is far from what he once was, he still has the potential to win a few more races before his career comes to a close. Johnson, Elliott, and Bowman have clawed their way back into playoff contention and look well positioned to improve their positions when NASCAR returns to points action for the Coca-Cola 600 on the biggest day in motorsports.