Johnson’s Historic Championship Saves Subpar Season for Hendrick Motorsports

Andrew Coppley/Harold Hinson Photography

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Is it truly feasible that an organization could spur a driver on to a record-tying championship and still consider their season underwhelming?

Yes, if the expectations are high enough.

Such was the case for Hendrick Motorsports (HMS), which lifted Jimmie Johnson to an historic seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in the Chase to salvage what had previously been a disappointing season.

The 2016 season began with a sense of cautious optimism for HMS and their legion of fans.

After 23 years competing full-time for HMS, retired four-time champion Jeff Gordon returned to the Daytona 500 in 2016, but found himself in the announcer’s booth for FOX rather than the cockpit.

In Gordon’s place entered rookie phenom Chase Elliott.

Few names could’ve been more perfectly positioned to take over Gordon’s famed No. 24 Chevrolet. Elliott, son of 16-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award winner Bill Elliott, entered his first premier series season after two years of competition in the XFINITY Series (NXS) for JR Motorsports.

Elliott came to NASCAR following a slew of late model triumphs and an ARCA Racing Series victory at Pocono Raceway. He won in just his sixth Camping World Truck Series start at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in 2013, and followed that win with a 2014 NXS run that saw the Georgian tally three victories en-route to the series championship.

Elliott’s sophomore season in the NXS proved largely underwhelming by comparison, with just one win and a runner-up finish in the standings, but his high ceiling and famous last name quickly elevated the rookie to the ranks of NASCAR’s most popular drivers entering 2016.

Throw in Johnson, Kasey Kahne and fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and expectations were as high as one might expect for one of NASCAR’s top teams.

The season started off strong for the group. While they failed to take the Sprint Unlimited, Elliott surprised the field the next day to claim the pole for the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt surged to the lead in the final stages to win one of Daytona’s two qualifying races.

With two of the top three starting positions and Earnhardt behind the wheel of the dominant ‘Amelia’, a car that had claimed two wins on restrictor plate tracks in 2015, HMS entered as a favorite to win the Daytona 500. However, once the green flag waved, the race — and season — slowly began to unravel for the organization.

Elliott and Earnhardt both fell pray to Calamity Corner on that day, crashing off of Turn 4 and totaling their machines in similar accidents long before the checkered flag. Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota went on to dominate the day, settling the battle for the victory amongst themselves and leaving the competition in their shadow.

It’s in that shadow where HMS would spend the majority of their season. Johnson showed early flashes of speed, taking two victories in the opening four races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, but afterward the team began a winless streak that would stretch for over six months.

Kahne struggled, continuing a trend that’s persisted since 2013. Elliott showed occasional bursts of talent and consistency that defied his age, but restart woes and pit road mistakes cost him multiple opportunities to win.

Then, there was Earnhardt.

Coming off of back-to-back multi-win seasons for the first time since 2003-04, Earnhardt rode into 2016 with expectations that he would again claim multiple victories and ride into the Chase with hopes of a championship.

On multiple occasions Earnhardt looked capable of accomplishing just that. While Daytona proved underwhelming, Earnhardt followed the season-opening crash with three-straight top 10s, including a runner-up result at Atlanta. The 17-year veteran would finish no worse than 14th for the next eight weeks, rising as high as sixth in the standings before multiple crashes in Amelia’s final ride at Talladega Superspeedway sent Earnhardt free-falling back to eighth.

The veteran would spend the rest of the season’s first half in a constant state of inconsistency, riding highs that included four second-place results and six top 10s, but also suffering a litany of crashes and failures that dropped him as low as 13th in the standings with the Chase looming ever closer.

Of course, all stories of Earnhardt’s playoff possibilities ended as quickly as they began.

Earnhardt was suddenly removed from the No. 88 Chevrolet with concussion-like symptoms following the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway, sending HMS scrambling for a replacement driver while JR Nation tried to grasp that their favorite driver might be out for the rest of the season, if not longer.

In the end, Earnhardt sat the rest of the year out, taking the proper time to make a full recovery from the latest in a string of concussions.

Filling Earnhardt’s place would be both a legend and a prospect. Rick Hendrick pulled out his ace card to bring Gordon out of retirement for eight races, with the ride-less Alex Bowman taking the remaining 10 events.

Both drivers performed suitably, if not stellar, with each of them fostering one noteworthy moment – Gordon an emotional farewell lap at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the retiring Tony Stewart, and Bowman a dominant performance from the pole at Phoenix International Raceway that nearly garnered his first win and earned him a chance to race in “The Clash” this coming February at Daytona.

Still, with Earnhardt out, the No. 88 team had no stake in the driver’s championship. Thanks to a slew of disappointing performances, neither did Kahne’s No. 5 team.

In the end, only two drivers from HMS made the Chase – Johnson and Elliott.

The rest, so they say, is history. While Elliott’s playoff push fizzled out in the second round, Johnson caught fire and rode victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway to his seventh-career championship, tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most titles in premier series history.

Johnson’s triumph was historic, a feat that few thought possible when he entered the Chase amid career-worst levels of performance.

However, beyond that, HMS’ year was filled with more struggles than success, and while their expectations will (rightfully) be as high as ever in 2017, they have multiple opportunities for improvement.

2016 was one of the worst statistical years HMS has seen in the last two decades.

The team’s five wins tied their lowest total since a four-win 2000 season. Their 29 top fives and 57 top 10s were their fewest since 2002 and 2003, respectively, and their 1,355 laps led, while better than the 1,176 total from 2015, were the second smallest total they’ve mustered since their struggling 2000 season, when they held the top spot for just 816 circuits.

Given Earnhardt’s absence and the entry of newcomer Elliott in place of Gordon, the stats listed above aren’t terribly surprising. Still, the team has a few questions to answer in 2017.

For Johnson, the anticipation of a record-setting eighth title begins as quickly as the seventh trophy is celebrated, and while 2016 resulted in a surprising championship, the team’s struggles throughout the year pose a serious opportunity for improvement.

Looking at Earnhardt, 2017 seems full of promise after what the driver and his doctors claim to be a full recovery from his summer concussion. However, the true level of improvement and strength has yet to be seen.

Until Earnhardt emerges unhurt from a few crashes, fear of another concussion will cross through JR Nation’s mind whenever the two-time Daytona 500 champion shunts. Given Earnhardt’s age, 42, there also persists the fear that another lengthy concussion could spur retirement.

Elliott’s 2016 tour proved to be one of the best rookie campaigns in NASCAR’s history. Now he’ll look to do in 2017 what recent prospects Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon couldn’t do, avoid the sophomore slump.

As for Kahne, something has to give.

Early promise from his 2012 addition to the team have given way to lackluster results, and while the 13-year vet continues to pull sponsorship, his results don’t live up to the expectations set by the rest of the team.

Kahne showed improvement during the Chase, and Earnhardt’s recent career renaissance following subpar performances inspire hope, but the door’s slowly closing for Kahne to make a mark in his time with a top team. He’d best find a way to strike while the opportunity is still there.

In the end, Hendrick’s best move of the season might not have even come on the track. Hendrick announced at Bristol Motor Speedway, in August, that he’d signed 2016 NCWTS standout William Byron to join HMS moving forward. Byron, a 2015 K&N Pro Series East champion, led the NCWTS in victories this season, and came just one motor failure at Phoenix short of a dominant title run with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Byron will compete with JR Motorsports in the NXS in 2017. If his talent comes along as well as Elliott’s, the two could become HMS’ dynamic duo for the next decade or more.

Even with Earnhardt, Johnson and Kahne slowly creeping toward the ends of their careers, the future looks promising for HMS. And while 2016 might not have been the year they expected, their accomplishment of the end goal with Johnson will be the only thing that anyone remembers 10 years from now.

2016 Year in Review

Hendrick Motorsports

Joe Gibbs Racing

Team Penske

Furniture Row Racing

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