Hendrick still NASCARs powerhouse despite rise of super teams

Even with Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing emerging as title favorites, Hendrick is proving its still a juggernaut in the sport

John David Mercer—USA Today Sports
NASCAR Monster Cup Series driver Chase Elliott (24) talks with driver Jimmie Johnson (48) on pit road during qualifying for the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway. Chase Elliott won the Daytona 500 pole for second straight year.

On the Hendrick Motorsports campus in Concord sits a Victory Bell. Every time over the past five seasons that the team collects a checkered flag, the bell has been carried around the campus with all four drivers last wheeling it around in 2014.Last season, Hendrick Motorsports put together just five wins at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It marked the first time since 2011 and only the second time since 2000 that the team has won less than six races in a single year.So it was a down season, right? Wrong.Jimmie Johnson carried the banner for one of NASCAR’s original super teams in 2016, winning all five of the team’s races and his seventh premier series championship. So even in a season that was down for half of the team, Hendrick came away with the premier series title.That’s how dominant Hendrick is in NASCAR.Hendrick is such a powerhouse that Alex Bowman, who filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. last year on a part-time basis, turned down jobs to remain with the team.”I was kind of surprised that a winning XFINITY car or something like that didn’t open up,” said Bowman. “At the same time, I had quite a few full-time Cup opportunities that were offered. But there was just really wasn’t anything that was going to make me leave Hendrick Motorsports.”Whatever I’m doing, I want to be part of a winning team. Nothing was going to drag me away from here.”While he didn’t earn a win in his rookie season, Chase Elliott took home Rookie of the Year with 10 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. Elliott is also one of only three rookie drivers to ever make the Chase, finishing 10th in points last season.Elliott still has a lot of work to do to completely emerge from two shadows that follow him as the son of Bill Elliott and taking over Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 ride. Given Elliott’s talent and history as the youngest driver to ever win the Xfinity Series championship, Johnson knows the wins are coming.”He learned a couple tough lessons last year being so close to victory and slipped away for whatever the reasons may be,” Johnson said. “He’s going to win. He’s going to win a lot. Once he rings the bell the first time, he’s not going to stop, and then championships will be next.””I’m just happy we have him at Hendrick Motorsports. I’d hate to race against him.”As for the other half of the team, Earnhardt Jr. missed half of the season with a concussion while Kasey Kahne struggled through another tough season. But with Hendrick power under the hood, there’s plenty of potential for a turnaround for both teams.Junior already started his comeback with a front-row qualifying effort alongside Elliott, who sits on the pole for Sunday. Even with powerhouse teams like Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing catching up, Hendrick is never far from ringing the Victory Bell and winning titles.”You know, I’ve always wanted to win a championship so badly,” Earnhardt said. “Coming back from this injury, we worked so hard. … That’s the last box I haven’t checked really. There’s a few races I’d like to win. The championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career.”