Can Hendrick drivers pull off a surprise in the Playoffs?

Can Hendrick drivers pull off a surprise in the Playoffs?
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With Jimmie Johnson on the sidelines, can a Hendrick heir apparent make a run at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup title?

For the last two years, a Chevrolet driver hasn’t even advanced to the Championship round. With five bow-tie drivers among the 16 playoff contenders, Hendrick Motorsports has the greatest representation with Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron in the mix.

Sure, it has been an up-and-down season for Hendrick Motorsports with just three trips to Victory Lane in the first 27 races. Johnson, the seven-time champion, is enduring his second winless season and missed the Playoffs for the first time in his 19-year career.

But with the promise the company exhibited last weekend at Las Vegas—with all four cars finishing 11th or better in the South Point 400—Hendrick just might be getting hot at the right time.

Elliott led the contingent at Las Vegas with a fourth-place finish—his ninth top-five of the season and his third in the last six races. When it comes to career starts and finishes, Elliott's average qualifying effort is 11.7—his worst since he started running full-time in Cup in 2016. His average finish of 13.4 is one position better than his rookie season’s 14.6. Still, Elliott is on track to exceed his career best top fives (12, he currently has nine) and laps led (he’s 17 circuits short of 560).

“Our group has worked really hard throughout the year,” Elliott said. “I feel like we’ve had speed at different points throughout the year. Certainly, there have been times where I feel like we’ve been much better than other times. Some of that, I feel like, has been our own doing. Some has been misfortune. I think just cleaning-up some of the days that we can control it, I think would be a great thing for us. And trying to be a little steadier.

“I feel like we’ve been steadier in years past than what we’ve been this year. I know it’s in us and we’ve just got to execute these last 10 weeks. Like I’ve said before, I really feel like when we’re at our best, we can run with those guys that you have to beat and I don’t feel any different right now.”

Of the three Hendrick Playoff drivers, Elliott has the best shot of advancing to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the season finale. Three of his five Cup wins are at tracks (Dover, Kansas and Talladega) featured in the Playoffs. Elliott had an average finish of 7.7 on the seven Playoff tracks that the series raced on earlier this year. The two venues with his worst average finishes Talladega (14th) and Martinsville (14.8), he finished first and second, respectively, in the spring.

Elliott, who is sixth in the standings, averaged a third-place result last year at Richmond and finished sixth at the inaugural Charlotte Roval race. Based on his averages, Round 2 should be the most challenging for the 23-year-old driver. However, earlier this year he posted top-five finishes at Dover, Talladega and Kansas but finished second, 13th and 14th at Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix. As impressive as Hendrick Motorsports has been with its intermediate program this season, Elliott could be a serious contender. He’s completed every lap on the 1.5-mile track and has an average finish of 7.7.

Byron, 21, has lagged behind Bowman in the standings for most of the year. But collecting an additional seven stage points in the first two segments at Las Vegas, despite finishing seventh, allowed the driver of the No. 24 to leapfrog over his teammate and vault from 13th in the standings to ninth.

Under the direction of crew chief Chad Knaus, Byron has made steady gains over last year and in the second half of this season—including his best finish at Las Vegas. Byron’s best result as a rookie last year was sixth. In 2019, he’s earned four poles, three top fives and 10 top 10s with nine races remaining in the season. He’s shaved six positions from his average finish and tripled his laps led (187) with nine races remaining.

“It’s encouraging,” Byron said of his improved statistics. “I’d much rather be finishing up there than worse than that. You’ve got to finish somewhere and finishing up front is way better.

“We’re building on it and gaining on it, for sure. Hopefully, as we continue, we can kind of knock off some wins.”

Bowman celebrated his first Cup win earlier this year at Chicagoland Speedway to advance to the Playoffs. In his second full season with Hendrick, Bowman has already surpassed his top-five finishes from last year and more than doubled his laps led. His average finish is also three positions higher than 2018’s 17th.

Like his teammates, Bowman has been solid on intermediate tracks which bodes well at Kansas and Texas—and Homestead should he advance. In the spring, Bowman posted three-consecutive second-place finishes at Talladega, Dover and Kansas.

However, the No. 88 team has been streaky at best over the summer. In the 10 races since qualifying for the post-season at Chicagoland, Bowman has just two top-10 results and an average finish of 15.6. If he wants to advance beyond Round 2, Bowman will have to pick up the pace—starting this weekend at Richmond. Traditionally, the .75-mile has not been the best for the 26-year-old driver. In seven Richmond starts, his best results was 12th in this race last year.

“Richmond is one of those tracks that we have struggled at in the past,” Bowman said. “We need to get stage points this weekend and help increase our position in the point standings before going into next weekend’s race.

“We didn’t finish great in the spring after battling a tight car throughout the race and having another issue there at the end. Greg (Ives, crew chief) and this Nationwide team have been working hard to get our short-track program better and better, so hopefully we unload fast on Friday.”

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