Hendrick Motorsports carries momentum into Pocono

Holly Cain - NASCAR Wire Service Tuesday, May 28 1078
Hendrick Motorsports carries momentum into Pocono NK Photography Photo

Martin Truex Jr. may have hoisted the winner’s trophy late Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but Hendrick Motorsports left the sport’s “home track” feeling pretty good and certainly energized as the circuit moves to Pocono, Pa. this weekend for the Pocono 400 (Sunday, 2 p.m., FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

For the first time this season, the four-driver Hendrick team had four drivers finish a race ranked among the top 10. Chase Elliott – already a race winner at Talladega, Ala. last month – paced the group with a fourth place finish. Alex Bowman maintained his top-10 work – answering a three-race streak of runner-up finishes with a seventh-place showing at Charlotte.

Seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was eighth, followed by the race’s polesitter, William Byron, who was ninth. Elliott led 43 laps. Bowman led eight and Byron paced the field for 31.

It wasn’t a trophy for the historically top-shelf Hendrick team, but it was vindication that after some uncharacteristic struggles in the last two years, there is promise on the horizon.

“It seems like we’re getting better for sure,’’ Byron said. “With all four of us in the top 10, that’s pretty good. And we’ll just work from there.’’

That’s a calm and cautious way to say that the team is feeling as optimistic as it has in a while. Hendrick has had multiple drivers - two, three and now all four of them -  finish in the top-10 in the last four consecutive races.

Elliott won Talladega and Bowman was runner-up. Bowman finished second at Dover, Del., Elliott was fifth and Byron was eighth. Bowman finished second at Kansas with teammates Elliott (fourth) and Johnson (sixth) not far behind.

A top-10 sweep at Charlotte was the surest of signs that this championship-contending team may be turning what’s been a competitive sharp corner.

“It’s huge,’’ Bowman said after the race. “I was a little late to the party with running better, but it says a lot about the 650 people that work for HMS, working their butts off. I’m not giving up and we’re just going to continue getting better and better.’’

Heading to the notoriously tough Pocono 2.5-mile racing triangle this week, the Hendrick drivers have reason to remain optimistic. Last year – even while the team was in the midst of some performance struggles – it had solid results at “The Tricky Triangle.”

Johnson (eighth) and Elliott (10th) both finished top-10 in this upcoming Pocono 400 last year. Three of the four Hendrick drivers had top-10s in the second Pocono race. Bowman was third, Byron was sixth – and led 10 laps – and Elliott was seventh, leading 14 laps.

Historically, Pocono is encouraging for the Hendrick foursome. Johnson has three wins, 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes in 34 starts. He won from the pole position in this race in 2013 and swept the 2004 season races. His top-10 last year in the No. 48 Chevrolet marks his only top-10 in the last six races there. He has proven to be stellar, however, for most of his career at the track – finishing top-10 in 14 of 17 races from 2006-2014 including that win from pole position.

Elliott has been similarly stellar, if not victorious, at Pocono. He has five top-10 finishes in six starts, his best showing is a fourth place in his maiden Pocono race in 2016 – leading 51 laps. He was 10th and seventh at the track last year in the No. 9 Chevrolet.

Bowman is the only Hendrick driver that hasn’t led a lap at Pocono, but his third place in last year’s second Pocono race was the best Hendrick showing since Johnson finished third in 2015.

Byron led 10 laps and picked up his first Pocono top-10 in his second Cup visit in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. There is solid precedent for the young driver, however. He won a 2016 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race from pole position at Pocono in 2016 – leading a dominating 44 of the race’s 60 laps.

Last weekend Team Penske’s three-time 2019 race winner Brad Keselowski told reporters that he fully expects the full Hendrick stable to begin winning races very soon. The expectations are high both within and outside the company – a sure sign that good things are on the horizon.

The four Hendrick drivers are all ranked within the top 16 in the standings, which would put them in the Playoffs if they were to start today. Elliott essentially has an automatic Playoff berth with his victory. Bowman is ranked 10th, Johnson is 14th and Byron is 15th – hoping to earn his first ever Cup title shot.