Hendrick Motorsports is arguably the best team in NASCAR. The organization, which began as All-Star Racing in 1984, has 240 wins in the Cup Series with 11 championships. The team has been a powerhouse and over the years has featured some of the sport’s biggest named drivers over their 32 year history. However, over the next five years the face of Hendrick Motorsports may change.
Jeff Gordon won 93 races and four championships for the organization. He made 798 career starts from 1992-2015, recently running his last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November. He is one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history. His 93 wins are third on the all-time list and he is just one of four drivers to have four or more championships. Not only is Gordon’s one of the best drivers on the track but off the track he is one of the most recognizable names in NASCAR history.
Gordon has been one Sports Illustrated several times and is the only driver to ever host the popular sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live. Gordon’s fame on the track may only be topped by his fame off the track.
The same could be said for Gordon’s former teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt’s 26 career wins doesn’t rank him as high on the wins list but that doesn’t mean Earnhardt hasn’t been successful. He is arguably one of NASCAR’s best competitors. He has made the Chase in each of his last five seasons, a vast improvement from his struggles with the organization earlier in his career.
Off the track, Earnhardt has become the most popular driver in NASCAR. Since 2004 there has been just one driver to win the annual “NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver” Award and it’s been Dale Earnhardt Jr. His t-shirt sales and merchandise sales far exceed any other drivers on the circuit. There’s no doubt Earnhardt has now taken the throne as NASCAR’s most recognizable names.
Another Hendrick Motorsports driver who has had success is Jimmie Johnson. Johnson has won 75 races since coming on the tour in 2002 and has six career championships. He set the record for most consecutive seasons with a championship with five. Johnson is one of the most successful drivers in the history of NASCAR and since the Chase was implemented in 2004 only one driver has made it every single season and that has been Johnson.
Gordon, Earnhardt and Johnson have three of the most successful and most recognizable drivers in NASCAR over the last 15 seasons. These three drivers, along with the team’s fourth driver Kasey Kahne, have helped carry the successful organization through those years. However, you have to wonder how long both Earnhardt and Johnson are going to race and keep their names in the sport of NASCAR and at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon will be replaced by 20 year old Chase Elliott. Elliott is the son of 1988 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Bill Elliott. Along with a popular name the young Elliott also brings a lot of talent to the Cup Series. He won the 2014 NASCAR XFINITY Series championship and over his two year XFINITY Series career was consistent among the top runners in the series. There’s little doubt Elliott will be a championship contender in the Cup Series in the near future.
However, replacing Johnson and Earnhardt is a reality that Hendrick Motorsports has to face in the next five years. Both drivers have reached their 40’s and it appears that both drivers have plenty more years behind them than they do in front of them. That means Hendrick Motorsports isn’t too far away from trying to piece together who will take over for both Earnhardt and Johnson.
The question as to who will replace Earnhardt and Johnson is still a long ways from being answered but expect Hendrick Motorsports to do some searching for a young driver shortly. Chase Elliott has been one of the few drivers Hendrick Motorsports has developed over the last 10 years. The team used JR Motorsports to help groom Elliott and it may do that again for a future replacement.
However, Hendrick Motorsports may be behind the eight ball. If you look at what Toyota has done with their young drivers over the past 18 months, the company deserves a ton of credit. Erik Jones looks like a future superstar and they have signed K&N East champion William Byron to a truck series contract in 2016. Along with Byron the company has also helped get dirt star Christopher Bell in a truck along with Cody Coughlin and Daniel Suarez.
Ford also has a ton of young talent. Team Penske has two potential young phenoms in Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney. Reddick competed for a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title for Brad Keselowski’s team while Blaney has won eight races in NASCAR so far and has been a consistent contender.
Roush Fenway Racing’s Chris Buescher won the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship in 2015. He and young teammate Darrell Wallace Jr provided some flashes of brilliance in 2015 and look for both drivers to continue to progress as Roush Fenway Racing’s next crop of young drivers.
While Toyota’s and Ford’s future is bright with a lot of fresh young talent coming through the ranks, the same can’t be said about Hendrick Motorsports. As mentioned before, the team does not have an NASCAR XFINITY Series or NASCAR Camping World Truck Series team. That means the team needs to rely on Dale Earnhardt Jr’s, JR Motorsports teams for their development.
If you look at JR Motorsports’ driver lineup for 2016 it does not look all that young. Veteran Elliott Sadler will pilot one of the race teams. Sadler a 40 year old driver has just one win in the last three seasons in the XFINITY Series. Joining Sadler is Justin Allgaier. Allgaier, lost his ride at HScott Motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series but that wasn’t because of his performance. He will be 30 years old next June and has proven his worth in the XFINITY Series before. Also joining the mix is an array of Cup drivers for the 2016 season, with Alex Bowman being the only one not in the Hendrick Motorsports mix in the Cup Series. Bowman is a 21 year old driver from Arizona, who will drive the 2016 season for Tommy Baldwin Racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, while splitting a ride in the XFINITY Series.
None of the drivers I just mentioned are in a development deal with Hendrick Motorsports, which makes you wonder if the team is out looking for their next big young driver. If they don’t find their next big driver you have to wonder where Hendrick Motorsports will pull from to get the drivers who will eventually replace Earnhardt and Johnson.
Whatever Hendrick Motorsports does in the upcoming years, there is no doubt there will be new faces for the organization. One has to wonder who will be the faces at Hendrick Motorsports.