NASCAR owner Rick Hendrick is having fun again with new-look lineup
Rick Hendrick says he’s having fun again.
And why shouldn’t he? He’s got seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in his No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro. He’s got Chase Elliott – already stock car racing’s newest Most Popular Driver – in his No. 9 Chevy. He’s got Daytona 500 pole-winner Alex Bowman in his No. 88 car and Rookie of the Year-in waiting William Byron in his No. 24 Chevy.
Let’s call them Grandpa and the Three Rugrats.
Indeed… life is good. It’s even better because Elliott, Bowman and Byron are under the age of 25. Each has qualified top-10 for Sunday afternoon’s 60th annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
Most importantly, each of Hendrick’s four drivers is capable of adding more NASCAR Cup Series championship banners to the 12 already on display at Hendrick Motorsports. Surely, that under-25 trio figures to be winning for decades.
Hendrick has almost always known talent. It started with Geoffrey Bodine in 1984, a time when few owners believed in him. He gave flamboyant IndyCar driver Tim Richmond a star-crossed Cup ride. He helped Terry Labonte win his second Cup 12 years after his first.
He signed a young Jeff Gordon away from Ford Racing, was all-in when Johnson was largely undervalued, took an ill-advised flier on Kyle Busch, lured Dale Earnhardt Jr. (an easy sell) from Dale Earnhardt Inc., signed Elliott as a teenager, then waited patiently while Bowman and Byron became Cup-worthy.
It was mentioned after Sunday qualifying that half the top-10 are under 25 and none has ever won a Cup race. Bowman is 0-for-81; fifth-starting Byron is making his Cup debut this weekend; sixth-starting Erik Jones is 0-for-39; seventh-starting Daniel Suarez is 0-for 36; and 10th starting Elliott is 0-for-77. Hendrick was asked if that unusual top-10 grid marks the passage of the torch to NASCAR’s younger generation. If anyone should know, it would be him.
“All I can tell you is that when I hired Chase in 2014 and we moved him into Xfinity and he won a championship, you think, ‘Okay, this kid’s got it; he’s good; let’s put him in a (Cup) car and let him learn,’” Hendrick said. “I did that when Jeff Gordon came along; I saw something in him and said, ‘All that talent… just put him in the right spot and he’s going to do well.’”
And we had good luck with that. When Dale Jr. got hurt (midway through 2016) he said he wanted Alex in the car (because) he’s got a ton of talent. He showed the talent and the sponsors really liked him. William was the same way. We didn’t know if we could get him a sponsor in Xfinity, then he goes out and wins a championship and everybody loves him.
“I look at it like this – and I can’t speak for the rest of the garage: when I have an opening and there’s a guy I’ve tried to groom and he develops faster than I thought he could… and if you don’t do something with him, someone else is. I mean, he’s going to go somewhere. My idea this year was top let them learn in the stuff they’re going to be driving for a long time. To watch (Byron) go out to Vegas – which is a tough track – and never having been in a Cup car and have the top (testing) time by lunchtime… that says a lot about talent.
“And Alex: the first time he got in our car was at New Hampshire, and he was going for the front there with about 10 laps to go. I mean, he hadn’t been in the car, hadn’t worked with (crew chief) Greg Ives. He’s fearless and talented and has car control. They’re great young guys who want to learn. They’re all over in the shop with the (crew) guys having fun. It’s really, really exciting.”
It wasn’t long ago that Hendrick’s Daytona 500 lineup was Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Now, with Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. retired, and Kahne shipped off to an ambitious mid-pack team, it’s left to Byron from Charlotte, Bowman from Tucson and Elliott from Dawsonville to learn from Johnson and take Hendrick – and, to some degree – NASCAR itself deep into the future.
If fans can’t find something they like within that lineup, there’s little hope for the series.
“Here come these three guys from all walks of life, driving for us, and we just went with what we thought was a good lineup,” Hendrick said. “We know it’s going to be tough. We know we’re going to have problems; not many problems, but we’re having a good time and we’re learning. These guys are working with the engineers. They understand; they want to get in there. They’re looking at traces and working themselves hard. But their learning level is so rapid. These guys are unbelievable at what they do.
“But, yeah, they’re going to make mistakes on pit road. They’re going to make mistakes on restarts… but so do guys who have been doing it every week. But how good can they be? That’s the part I get excited about. If they’re that good at this age, what can they be later on? We should be competitive for a long time.”