CHARLOTTE, N.C. (McClatchy) — The accolades speak for themselves.
Those 16 NASCAR championships, including 12 in the Cup Series. Hundreds of wins. All the notable names — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson — and all their notable accomplishments.
It’s what made Hendrick Motorsports, at least for much of the past two decades, arguably NASCAR’s premier team.
So what the heck is wrong with them now?
We’re only six races into the 2018 NASCAR season, and already the alarms have been sounded over at Hendrick. The team’s current four drivers — Alex Bowman, Johnson, Chase Elliott and rookie William Byron — have collected only one Top 5 finish altogether (Elliott at Phoenix). They are, respectively, 14th, 17th, 18th and 20th in the NASCAR standings. And Johnson just lost the only sponsor he’s ever known, Lowe’s, beyond this season.
None of that is up to the Hendrick standards. Not even close.
So what happened? What caused one of NASCAR’s best teams to nosedive like it has?
First off, talk like that. Hendrick isn’t nosediving or spiraling or disintegrating anytime soon. It’s still one of the most reputable organizations in NASCAR with some of the best equipment available. And did everyone forget about the seven-time Cup champion on staff?
No, the reality is that Hendrick’s problems are temporary. They’re also not entirely on Hendrick.
For example: the new Chevy Camaro. Hendrick is one of the teams driving it this season. So too is Chip Ganassi Racing, Richard Childress Racing and a handful of other smaller teams. What do they all have in common? They’ve largely struggled in the early going this season (even though Chevy driver Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500). The only Top 10 Chevy driver in the standings now is Kyle Larson in ninth.
But we expected that sort of beginning. Toyota drivers had the same troubles with their new car at the start of last season, and didn’t that turn out just fine? There’s an adjustment period for all the Chevy drivers right now, including those at Hendrick.
Then there’s the turnover factor. Gone are Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne, replaced this time by Bowman and Byron. It’s Byron’s first-ever Cup season and Bowman’s first full season on a decent team. Anyone who expected those two to come out scoring Top 5’s from the get-go was unrealistic. If anything, it’s impressive that they’re both not farther back in the standings.
Now, Johnson’s performance drop-off has been somewhat of a cause for concern, but Lowe’s leaving the sport is much more indicative of NASCAR’s overall health than Johnson’s driving capabilities. Those seven rings say a lot, but so too does the fact that even in what he calls his worst pro season in 2017, he had three wins and almost made the championship race. He’s more than earned the benefit of the doubt.
Of course if Hendrick’s problems endure, this whole conversation changes. If by summer the team is still devoid of wins and quality finishes, if the new guys still haven’t assimilated, then we can talk seriously about what’s going wrong at Hendrick.
But for now? These first six races are more of a speed bump than a pothole — as it always has been at Hendrick, things will be fine.
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