Hendrick Motorsports rides a wave of momentum to Daytona

Alex Bowman’s first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway was not only a testament to his talent and his potential in the series, but perhaps an important sign that Hendrick Motorsports – one of NASCAR’s most renowned organizations – has regained its competitive form in a season dominated by two other teams.

The traditional mid-season summer stop at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be another important test to see where teams stack up with the Playoffs only nine races away.

The Hendrick team, who won at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway with Chase Elliott, had one of its best outings of the season in Chicago. All four team drivers – Bowman, Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and William Byron – finished among the top-11. And three of them – Bowman, Johnson and Byron led multiple laps.

It’s significant in a season that has been more regularly dominated by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske teams, which had accounted for 15 victories in the 16 races prior to Chicago.

“We as a team, are really close,” Byron said Sunday night following the Chicagoland race, noting that because the team does have more speed the expectations for all four drivers have risen.

“It’s a little disappointing now that we have the speed that we do, but it’s good to take the lead at some point in the race. I think that’s six or seven (races) in a row for that, so we just have to continue to do that. It’s good for Alex and hopefully we can piggy-back on that. I think we had another good points day, which doesn’t sound great, but we are making our way up the Playoff grid.”

And, Bowman’s win heading to Daytona coupled with Elliott’s victory at Talladega gives Hendrick Motorsports plenty of reason to feel optimistic heading into the Coke Zero Sugar 400. Cars will be using the same new technical package at Daytona International Speedway this weekend, replacing restrictor plates for the first time since 1988.

The Hendrick cars have historically been super-fast at Daytona. Byron (2019), Bowman (2018) and Elliott  (2015 and 2016) have won the last four Daytona 500 pole positions. Elliott is the defending polesitter in this week’s July race. But Johnson is the only one among them to win at Daytona – his three victories coming in July, 2013 and two Daytona 500 wins (in 2006 and 2013) are most among active drivers.

Johnson and Bowman finished ninth and 11th, respectively, at Daytona in February. Elliott won at Talladega in May.

Much has changed – improved – for the Hendrick foursome since the series last visit to Daytona Beach. And Sunday’s Chicagoland showing is not a blind squirrel finding a nut every so often. The team has shown quantifiable improvement, especially in the last few weeks.

At Dover all four drivers finished among the top-14, highlighted by Bowman’s runner-up and Elliott’s fifth place finishes. It was a top-10 sweep for the drivers at Charlotte, led by Elliott (fourth) then Bowman-Johnson-Byron seventh through ninth place.

At the notoriously tough Pocono 2.5-miler, Elliott finished fourth and Byron ninth. So Chicago’s work by the quartet is not so much an anomaly as a positive development.

“You know, the problem is when you’re fighting and you’re digging and you’re working hard, until you’re winning, you’re off by a lot,” Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives said Sunday. “And until you’re competing and contending – yeah, we could compete in some speedway races and help with that, but as you can tell, I think the whole Chevy organization has started to realize we’re better together. [General Motors executive] Jim Campbell, has been a big part of that, starting at Talladega with that win.”

“So it’s really about us working together, working better, not just the 88-team, not just Hendrick Motorsports but all of Chevrolet.

“I think that’s where we were behind. I think we were all behind trying to think that we were smarter than all of us put together. I appreciate the 48-team, the 9-team, the 24 from my camp to help bounce ideas off and build confidence off of some of the best in the garage.

“We were behind, yes. But I think you guys can tell we’re getting better and we’re contending and leading laps and that’s great.”

In six of the seven races following the Richmond, Va. stop, at least two Hendrick drives have led multiple laps. Elliott led the most (145) at Dover, Bowman led the second most laps at Kansas (63), as did Byron (21) at Sonoma.

This is a team and a manufacturer that shows up at Daytona for annual summer night race far from dreading the unknowns of pack racing, but instead feeling optimistic. And with good reason.

“It’s probably no surprise that we’re going to continue to work together with the Chevrolets,” Ives said of Daytona. “Handling is definitely a big part of that there. But the shorter race (400 miles) is different than the 500.

“So just a little bit of change in different strategy, but I think you’re going to see changes amongst all the manufacturers a little bit, to try to one-up each other and to try to make each other better than the next guy. We’ll have to see.