If you looked at the advanced metrics and statistics, you’d sit back and say to yourself, “Hendrick Motorsports had one of its worst seasons in a decade, they must be on the decline.” But we of course know that’s not the case, as Jimmie Johnson brought HMS another championship in a season that was a roller coaster to say the least. Oh, and team owner Rick Hendrick will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday. Not too shabby.
The future is shining bright at HMS, mostly in thanks to one person: Chase Eliott. The 20-year old superstar in the making dazzled fans, competitors and the NASCAR world with his performance throughout the 2016 season. He recorded 17 top tens, 10 top fives, two poles and led358 laps en route to earning the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award over Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Chris Buescher. He finished 10th in the points standings when the checkered flag fell in Miami, but didn’t end up finding victory lane in his rookie season.
Elliott quickly became known for being too hard on himself upon exiting the race car, leading to countless “I hate it for my guys,” memes making the rounds on social media. Elliott would find the smallest thing to critique himself on. But in 2017, he’s all but a lock to win his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race. It not if, but when. In his second year with crew chief Alan Gustafson, Elliott will be ready to take the next step, and contend for the title.
Kasey Kahne, on the other hand, is the biggest question mark surrounding this historic organization. He had the worst season of his career (by far) in 2016. In 36 races, he mustered only 13 top ten finishes and three top fives to go along with zero poles and missing the Chase. But get this—Kahne led zero laps. ZERO. Not even a single lap in a pit sequence. That statistic is indicative of how Kahne’s season went—deplorably. It’s one thing if Kahne and Kenny Francis were in a C or D-grade ride like HScott Motorsports, FrontRow Motorsports, etc. But this is Hendrick Motorsports. This is the best of the best, and mediocrity is not accepted.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2016 might not have been the worst of his career since he arrived at HMS in the late 2000s, but it was certainly the most eventful. As we all know, Jr. only competed in half the MENCS season—18 of the 36 races—due to a concussion sidelining him for half the season. In those 18 races, he recorded six top tens, five top fives and led 53 laps. But 2016 will be considered a “washout” for Jr. in the grand scheme of his career. He will go into 2017 with a fresh mind, clear (and non-concussed) head and a wedding ring on his finger.
The two drivers that substituted for Earnhardt Jr. during his 18-race absence were Alex Bowman and the old man, *retired* Jeff Gordon. Bowman impressed in his 10-race stint, scoring three top tens and one pole in the No. 88 Chevrolet. He also led the bulk of his 200 laps at Phoenix, his home track, and nearly won that race. Gordon ran eight races and came out of retirement (and a family vacation in France) to help out his friend, Mr. Hendrick. In those races, he only earned two top tens and led seven laps. But seeing the four-time champion behind the wheel of the No. 88—not the No. 24—was strange. Will we see him again in 2017, or ever again in NASCAR? That remains to be seen.
And now, the best for last: Jimmie Johnson. 16 top tens, 11 top fives, one pole and 737 laps led aren’t eye-popping numbers. But five wins (Atlanta, Fontana, Charlotte, Martinsville and Homestead) is an impressive stat. The wins at Fontana and Charlotte came a whopping 25 races apart. And in those 25 races, HMS and the No. 48 team went through some rough patches. At one point. Rick Hendrick pulled a 24-hour shift in the wind tunnel with his engineers, drivers, team members, etc. to show them that even when the going gets tough, the owner of the most successful team in NASCAR history was by their side, on the ground.
At Homestead-Miami Speedway in late-November, Johnson won the Ford EcoBoost 400 and in turn, his record-tying seventh championship. To put yourself in the same sentence as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt is enough to be considered one of the all-time greats. To tie, and in some ways, outperform what they’ve done, makes you unarguably one of the G.O.A.T.’s. And in a season where Johnson had his least amount of top fives since his rookie season in 2002, his least amount of top tens ever and one of the longest winless stretches of his career, the 40-year old won it all. And with Chad Knaus atop the pit box for the foreseeable future, I think it would be naïve of you to count out seven-time. How did that work out in 2016?
Elliott is a surefire lock to make the playoffs once again. He will most likely grab a win and even compete for a Championship Four spot. He is one of, if not the guy who will be the future of the sport. Someone that can transform the demographics that come into NASCAR (as well as the new title sponsor of Monster Energy) and that, at the end of the day, is a winner.
Kahne’s contract goes through the 2018 season, and he has sponsors of Farmers Insurance, LiftMaster and UniFirst signed into the No. 5 through that season. But Mr. Hendrick is unhappy—and so is Kahne. And if performance doesn’t improve in 2017, don’t be surprised if you see Kahne and HMS part ways, or maybe Kahne even pull a Carl Edwards and walk away. With a young child and a dirt track team as his two primary focuses, NASCAR could be on the backburner. And HMS has a budding superstar in William Byron waiting in the wings.
Earnhardt Jr. comes into 2017 feeling better than he’s ever felt. And per Dr. Mickey Collins, who treated Junebug in his rehabilitation from his concussion, his brain is now stronger than it has ever been. Although the dreaded r-word, retirement, has been thrown around more than it can be caught nowadays. But Earnhardt Jr. has no plans to walk away from the only sport he, and his family, have ever known. He looks to get back on track, into victory lane and into the playoffs this upcoming season. And with Greg Ives being able to focus on one driver, rather than juggling three in one season, some of the burden will lifted off his shoulders as well.
What else is there to say about JJ? He has seven, so now all that matters is eight. One number can mean so much. But if he does it, he’ll be in his own category of athletes. At 40 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. The only question is, will No. 8 come in ’17?