2017 NASCAR Team Recap: Hendrick Motorsports

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

For the final five days of 2017, Kickin’ the Tires will recap each of the top 10 teams in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, laying out their year in statistics and storylines. 

The Breakdown

Wins: Four

Playoff Berths: Three

Highest Points Finisher: Fifth

Driver Results:

  • Chase Elliott (Fifth in Points – Zero wins, 12 top fives, 21 top 10s, 560 laps led, Four DNFs)
  • Jimmie Johnson (10th in Points – Three wins, Four top fives, 11 top 10s, 217 laps led, Seven DNFs)
  • Kasey Kahne (15th in Points – One win, Three top fives, Six top 10s, 41 laps led, Seven DNFs)
  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (21st in Points – Zero wins, One top five, Eight top 10s, 47 laps led, Seven DNFs)

Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) placed three drivers inside of the playoffs and sent their fourth driver off with a memorable final season. But based on the standards set by the iconic team’s history, it’s difficult to look at 2017 as anything other than a disappointment.

After leading Jimmie Johnson to a record-tying seventh Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2016, HMS entered among the favorites to claim a title once again in 2017.

Early on, the concept seemed feasible.

After returning from a lengthy hiatus for a concussion in 2016, Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved a contender in the season-opening Daytona 500 before a mid-race crash knocked him out of the event. Sophomore Chase Elliott found himself in contention in the ensuing two races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway, scoring finishes of fifth and third, respectively.

Kasey Kahne continued suffering the struggles he’d faced in the prior two seasons, and Earnhardt ultimately joined him after Daytona. But true to his traditional form, Johnson led the team to victory lane early in the year, winning back-to-back races at Texas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway in April. He later added a third victory at Dover International Speedway in June to give himself an early edge on the Cup Series field in playoff points.

Once the summer arrived, however, things began to get difficult for Johnson and his teammates. Toyota Racing’s Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing ascended to the top of the Cup Series, while HMS began to falter.

Johnson followed his Dover win with a crash at Pocono Raceway, and from there on the Californian struggled. In an uncharacteristic streak, the 42-year-old scored just three top 10s in the final 13 races of the regular season, with no finishes better than eighth during the stretch.

Earnhardt faded in similar fashion, falling from a fringe playoff contender to the mid-20s in the standings as the spring transitioned to the summer. The two-time Daytona 500 winner announced his plan to retire at season’s end in April, and from there on his year became more of a tale of remembrance of the past than a strong season in the present as he continuously struggled.

With Kahne also running poorly, only Elliott remained to lead the charge for HMS over the summer. But while the Georgian could often be seen inside of the top 10, his first Cup Series victory continued to prove elusive. The sophomore finished fifth at Dover International Speedway, second at Michigan International Speedway and third at Kentucky Speedway, but he couldn’t tally a win before the playoffs, making the postseason instead on points.

Surprisingly, the only HMS driver to score a victory over the summer months was Kahne. After benefitting from a timely caution, Kahne rose into the race lead late in the day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was there that the Enumclaw, Washington native fended off a fierce challenge from Johnson and got the better of a late duel with Brad Keselowski to claim his first victory since 2014.

The win was emotional for Kahne, who was rumored to be leaving HMS at season’s end – a move that was later confirmed. It was also season-altering, lifting the 37-year-old from mid-pack into the Cup Series playoffs.

While Earnhardt failed to advance to the postseason, the other three drivers in the HMS quartet all clinched playoff berths.

Kahne was quickly eliminated once the playoff began, suffering an early exit in the Round of 16 after failing to tally a top 10 in the round.

Johnson and Elliott continued on, advancing to the Round of 8 with consistent drives. It was there where Johnson was quietly eliminated.

Elliott also went out in the round, but did so amid controversy.

In the closing stages of the round’s opening race at Martinsville Speedway, Elliott appeared to have his first Cup Series win within sight. He piloted the No. 24 Chevrolet into position to start on the front row on a late restart, and moved fellow competitor Brad Keselowski up the track to take the lead. But contact in the ensuing set of turns from Denny Hamlin sent Elliott around, relegating the young star to a 27th-place result.

The run was a critical blow to Elliott’s playoff hopes. He would need a victory to advance to the championship race – an opportunity that seemed slim with just two races remaining in the round.

It seemed unlikely, but the opportunity presented itself two weeks later at Phoenix Raceway. Elliott got the better of Hamlin – forcing a cut tire for the veteran with contact that ultimately ended his championship pursuit. A few laps later Elliott soared into the race lead, seemingly setting himself up for an improbable drive to victory in a pressure situation.

But like in all his other near misses, someone else was quicker when it counted. In what may have been his penultimate race as a Cup Series driver, Matt Kenseth overtook Elliott late to claim an emotional win in the Arizona desert.

That left Elliott with yet another runner-up finish, eliminating him from playoff contention.

With all drivers ousted from the playoff field, Hendrick’s final race served largely as a tribue to the retiring Earnhardt. Piloting a special throwback paint scheme, Earnhardt brought home a quiet 25th-place finish in his final start in the No. 88 Chevrolet. He celebrated the moment afterward with his crew, downing beers on pit road WHILE reminsiscing over his 19-year Cup Series career.

In the end, the 2017 season was a difficult one for HMS. Only Elliott made what could be considered improvement, running deeper into the playoffs and setting new career marks for top fives (12), top 10s (21), laps led (560) and average finish (12.0). The others all endured forgetful years by their own standards, and are likely ready to move on to 2018.

The upcoming year will provide a few twists for HMS. Alex Bowman will replaced Earnhardt in the No. 88 – a move justified by his near-win as a replacement driver at Phoenix in 2016. Kahne will no longer be with the team, having moved over to Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 for 2018. He’ll be replaced by hotshot prospect and XFINITY Series champion William Byron, who will take over the No. 24. Elliott will shift numbers, taking on the No. 9 made famous by his father, Bill Elliott.

The only one not to see any changes will be Johnson, who will begin his pursuit of a record-setting eighth Cup Series title once more.

Team Recaps: 

Germain Racing (Dec. 27)

Roush Fenway Racing (Dec. 27)

Richard Childress Racing (Dec. 28)

Wood Brothers Racing (Dec. 28)

Chip Ganassi Racing (Dec. 29)

Hendrick Motorsports (Dec. 29)

Team Penske (Dec. 30)

Stewart-Haas Racing (Dec. 30)

Joe Gibbs Racing (Dec. 31)

Furniture Row Racing (Dec. 31)

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