Just a few years ago, Hendrick Motorsports fielded four teams with all of it’s drivers over the age of 35. Now, with all four of those drivers retired from full-time NASCAR competition, Hendrick has the challenge to shape the next generation of Hendrick drivers and dominance with four drivers who are all under the age of 30.
For Hendrick, 2020 was a return to the team’s former glory. Ever since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh NASCAR Cup Series title with Hendrick in 2016, the whole organization had fallen off. No Hendrick driver captured more than three wins in a single season from 2017 through 2019, and in those three seasons, Hendrick scored four or less wins each year. 2020 marked not only the first championship for the organization since 2016.
With Jimmie Johnson now retired, the lineup has shifted at Hendrick. The no. 88 has been dropped and replaced by a Hendrick classic, the no. 5. Kyle Larson will drive the no. 5, which will be equipped with Johnson’s former team, while the former no. 88 team will become the new no. 48. 2021 may have plenty of changes in store for the organization, but it will surely see similar success as 2020.
Kyle Larson, No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE
2020: 4 starts, 0 wins, 1 top-five, 3 top-10s, 0 poles, 2 laps led, 34th in points
Career: 223 starts, 6 wins, 56 top-fives, 101 top-10s, 8 poles
Kyle Larson’s 2020 season in NASCAR is going to be remembered for the one word that sank his career overnight.
During an iRacing event not sanctioned by NASCAR, Larson used a racial slur while testing his microphone for a stream of the event. In the 12 hours following that comment, Larson lost his sponsors, his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing and the respect of many fans and followers of NASCAR. NASCAR and iRacing had indefinitely suspended him, and the path forward for the 28-year-old seemed uncertain. Larson did not return to NASCAR in 2020 and spent the summer winning over and over on dirt tracks across the United States.
Larson followed protocols to be reinstated by NASCAR and iRacing, going through sensitivity training and other exercises. Clearly, his talent wasn’t lost, which he proved by winning so many times on dirt. He wanted to be back in NASCAR, and NASCAR teams clearly wanted him. Tony Stewart, owner of Stewart-Haas Racing, appeared to be the team that Larson would land at, but Rick Hendrick was the owner who signed him in the end.
For 2021, Larson needs to be competitive. As of now, it doesn’t appear that he’s coming into 2021 with any primary sponsorship. A photo leaked on social media platforms of a Hendrickcars.com hauler with a no. 5 decal on it, matching the style that Hendrick has used in past years. While Hendrick can support a team out of his pocket for now, it’s not likely something that he’ll do forever.
The writer’s prediction: Kyle Larson will be somewhat competitive and make the playoffs. It’s going to take a few months for him to readjust back from dirt to NASCAR, but I do expect him to win once: the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race.
Chase Elliott, No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE
2020: 36 starts, 5 wins, 15 top-fives, 22 top-10s, 1 pole, 1,247 laps led, 1st in points
Career: 185 starts, 11 wins, 59 top-fives, 96 top-10s, 9 poles
Chase Elliott fans took to the streets across America to celebrate a championship that will forever be remembered in NASCAR. Elliott’s championship marked the first time since 1988 that the fan-voted most popular driver won the NASCAR Cup Series title, when his father accomplished the same feat. Aside from winning a championship, 2020 was a career year Elliott. The only statistical category that he didn’t score his personal best was in pole positions. He also won the all-star race at Bristol, marking the first time since 2013 that the same person won the championship and the all-star exhibition event in the same year. It’s crazy to think that Elliott really should have had a better season than what he posted, and that should scare the whole field.
Elliott, while fast through much of the beginning and end of the season, had a number of races that he should have won had the cards fallen just slightly differently. He blew a tire at Las Vegas in the spring, costing him what almost certainly would have been a victory. He was turned by Kyle Busch during the second Darlington race as he was slicing through the field and was racing for the lead. He lost control while fighting hard at the first Bristol race of the year and gave up a win there. Between these races and others, Elliott lost between four and six races that he probably should have or could have won.
Elliott is also riding a wave of momentum into 2021, having won the final two races of last season. Adding all these factors up, there’s only one safe assumption: the competition better watch out for the Napa no. 9 car in 2021, because he doesn’t plan on slowing down.
The writer’s prediction: Chase Elliott will only continue to improve, making it into the round of 8 comfortably and ending the season with seven wins or more.
William Byron, No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE
2020: 36 starts, 1 win, 4 top-fives, 14 top-10s, 0 poles, 140 laps led, 14th in points
Career: 108 starts, 1 wins, 9 top-fives, 31 top-10s, 5 poles
Hendrick Motorsports’ youngest driver was finally able to find victory lane in the sport’s premier division when he captured his first win at Daytona in the regular season finale. WHile this is a big step for Byron in his young career, this doesn’t mean that he’s going to immediately begin to win more races, despite having one of his personal best seasons.
Byron was eliminated in the round of 16 after a poor showing to open the playoffs, but he finished the year with four top-10 finishes in the final seven races. The biggest factor that will affect Byron on the track in 2021 is the man atop his pit box. Chad Knaus will no longer be Byron’s crew chief. Replacing Knaus will be a familiar face to long-time Byron fans, Rudy Fugle, who served as crew chief for Byron when he was driving in the Camping World Truck Series and won seven times together in 2016. If Fugle and Byron can get back up to speed before the second half of the season, Byron could make his best playoff run to date.
The writer’s prediction: William Byron will find victory lane for the second time in his career and will compete in the playoffs, but the first half of the season will be a bit slow as Rudy Fugle adapts to the Cup Series competition.
Alex Bowman, No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE
2020: 36 starts, 1 win, 6 top-fives, 15 top-10s, 0 poles, 440 laps led, 6th in points
Career: 189 starts, 2 wins, 16 top-fives, 41 top-10s, 2 poles
Like his teammate Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman had a career year in 2020, but he could have and should have done much better. Bowman had a number of races slip through his fingers that could have added up to four or five wins for the youngster from Arizona. But, nonetheless, Bowman did have a great year. Maybe he wasn’t winning or making a lot of noise, but Bowman showed great improvements as a driver. He performed great at some of his worst tracks, like Martinsville, where he finished sixth in both races.
In 2021, Alex Bowman’s no. 88 team from 2020 will stay together, but will now compete in the no. 48 Ally Financial car which Jimmie Johnson vacated at the end of 2020. While the pressure may be on the new no. 48 team to live up to Johnson’s reputation, the team also knows each other well since they’ve worked together before, which can help the team overcome that pressure.
The writer’s prediction: Bowman just needs to stay fast and consistent, fix a few mistakes, and the wins will come to the new driver of the historic no. 48. In 2021, he’ll win twice en route to another showing in the round of 8.