Don’t break up the band (Hendrick)
In a fairly simple move, Hendrick Motorsports announced today (May 5) that William Byron will remain with the NASCAR Cup Series team through 2025.
The news confirms that Hendrick, barring a breach of contract, is expected to retain the same Cup roster until the end of next season. Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson currently hold multi-year deals that will keep them with the team until 2023, while Chase Elliott is signed until 2027.
But does anyone really expect this lineup to split once 2023 is over?
And follow-up question: should he?
Going into the 12th race of the 2022 season this weekend at Darlington Raceway, every Hendrick entry has won at least one race, most recently thanks to Elliott’s triumph at Dover Motor Speedway last weekend. In all, he has won five of the 11 trophies presented this year, with Byron winning twice.
In 2021, the four-car operation was just as successful. Hendrick won 17 of the season’s 36 races, almost half of the calendar. Larson led the group by far with 10 wins en route to the championship, but Bowman was no slouch with four wins, while Elliott and Byron contributed two and one respectively.
So with Hendrick picking up pretty much where he left off in 2022, having won 45.4% of the 2022 Cup races compared to 47.2 in 2021, one has to wonder if Team Hendrick will be around for the long term.
After all, it’s not like any member of the group is trolling right now. Take the 2000s, for example. Despite the outstanding performances of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and others, there was often a simultaneous weak link in the organization, such as Brian Vickers or Casey Mears, who each won once during their Hendrick tenures. . Even in the 2010s, Kasey Kahne had seasons with a goose egg in the win column, the same with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
This is not the case with the current crop. Even Elliott, the last Hendrick driver to visit victory lane in 2022, had knocked on the door for a win and was the series points leader entering Dover.
It’s hard to imagine there are greener pastures in the Cup Series right now. Elliott and Byron seem in it for the long haul, but even Larson doesn’t seem ready to rush into another opportunity. Keep in mind that despite his title, sponsors still aren’t exactly clamoring to write a check to cover his NASCAR exploits. In 11 races in 2022, Larson won Valvoline decals at Phoenix Raceway, but all other events were virtually self-sponsored by team owner Rick Hendrick’s HendrickCars.com, much like 2021.
That is, could Larson even go somewhere else if he wanted to? Maybe Stewart-Haas Racing, where co-owner Gene Haas is known to do the trick, or an organization with some capital behind it like Trackhouse Racing Team. SHR is undoubtedly behind Hendrick at the moment overall, however, despite Chase Briscoe winning early in the season, and while Ross Chastain has taken Trackhouse to victory twice this year, Chastain has been one of the incarnations of a driver punching above the weight of a gear in NASCAR for the last decade. That’s not to say the cars aren’t good, but is it worth the risk for Larson to jump ship if his results lean more towards Daniel Suarez at Trackhouse (or heck, Kurt Busch at 23XI Racing) than Chastain?
Larson, barring a surprise full-time NASCAR exit, looks ready. Which leaves Bowman, a driver who excelled with a team that gave him his first real shot as a replacement for Earnhardt. There’s something to be said for loyalty, and Bowman seems like the type who wouldn’t forget where he came from.
He also has the backing of Ally, himself a sponsor who precedes Bowman to Hendrick in Johnson’s time. As long as Ally is happy and Bowman is happy, would he jump for another chance? Maybe, especially if there’s a chance of becoming an organization’s top dog, but is it worth leaving a comfortable gig for Hendrick, especially if Ally isn’t following?
It’s up to Hendrick to try to keep those guys around too. It’s not only the most consistent line-up in Cup racing right now, it’s also one of the best the team has ever run. After a more haphazard end to the 10s that I imagine Hendrick won’t want to repeat, a few years of stability probably look incredibly appealing – especially if Larson can start attracting more sponsorship dollars.
Plus, and it’s perhaps a sacrilege to say, the NASCAR Xfinity Series-to-Cup pipeline for Hendrick…is it really full of must-see talent? JR Motorsports’ current roster includes Justin Allgaier, who will likely end his career in the series. Sam Mayer may have the highest cap of his teammates, but he’s not hitting one as a major league ready just yet. Josh Berry has been an amazing story in Xfinity, but at 31, will he ever be a true Cup hopeful in a top team like Hendrick?
And that leaves Noah Gragson perhaps the biggest question mark in the peloton in a world where current Hendrick riders are staying for a long time. Byron’s extension means Gragson still won’t be a Hendrick Cup driver in 2023 unless there’s a surprise development, but it’s hard to argue with his pedigree when it comes to being ready for a shot at the first series, especially with his start to two wins. in the 2022 season.
Thing is, Gragson seems to play a bit on the court. It started the Kaulig Racing Cup this year, and it’s a team that looks set for a long stay in the sport, with expansion still possible. Or there’s his superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, whose partnership with Richard Childress Racing could mean racing with RCR down the line if Tyler Reddick ends up getting away or the organization adds a full-time team. .
Exit strategy, basically. And that’s probably for the best, as it’s not clear at this point that Gragson would be a better Cup driver than the four Hendrick currently has. In five years, of course, maybe Gragson will tear it up for another team when, say, Bowman is in decline. All right, try bringing him back into the fold then. But for now? It’s probably a short term loss, and maybe not even a long term gain.
So Byron is locked up until 2025? Awesome. Elliott is at Hendrick until 2027? Costs. Over the next 12 months, Hendrick is expected to do the same for Larson and Bowman, keeping the dynasty intact as long as it works.
Because it’s working well right now, and there’s no obvious alternative that would make the team even better. Why bother with a good thing?
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