Hendrick Motorsports in need of “Hail Mary” at Gateway?

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

MADISON, Ill. – For what seems like the first time ever in the modern-age of the NASCAR Cup Series, it appears Hendrick Motorsports may be the team playing catch-up at World Wide Technology Raceway for the Enjoy Illinois 300.

Going into the 240-lap event, all four drivers will start outside of the top-10 for the first time since September 2023 at Texas Motor Speedway. This came after the Chevrolet powerhouse failed to post a lap time faster than 17th overall in the joint, 30-minute practice session.

While the racing world may be used to seeing Hendrick Motorsports torment the competition in a weekly battle for supremacy with the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing, it really isn’t that anomalous to see the winningest team in the sport’s history struggle at WWT Raceway.

Introduced in 2022, the 1.25-mile track serves as one of the newer venues on the circuit with a reputation for being incredibly demanding on the car and driver. With comparisons from everything from Phoenix Raceway, to Richmond Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the two races at Gateway have largely been an enigma for the Cup competition.

Of the four prolific drivers in the Hendrick stable, only Kyle Larson and William Byron have scored one top-10 each with 35 laps led combined – both of which occurred in the most recent race there.

To no surprise, both drivers flashed the most speed from HMS in practice and qualifying. Byron led the team in practice with the aforementioned 17th-fastest time, and will have the best starting spot in 11th. Larson rolls off directly behind his teammate in 13th.

According to the 2021 champion, who is still waiting to be granted a playoff waiver after missing the Coca-Cola 600 last week to run the rain-delayed Indianapolis 500, his iconic No. 5 Hendrickcar.com Chevrolet is struggling to find “grip, speed, lap time,” and more.

However, Byron expressed much more optimism in his prospects for being competitive in Sunday’s main event.

“ I mean, my car has grip in areas,” Byron said. “We just can’t get it to do the things that it needs to do to exit the corner with speed. I Feel like that probably is across the board, based on how close we typically show up together. I think we missed something in the balance metrics and handling metrics, but hopefully we can fix that overnight. I feel like we have potential to improve that, so hopefully we can.”

The drivers with the biggest uphill climb appear to be Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott, both of who missed multiple races last year due to injury. 

In Elliott’s case, he was also forced to sit from the most recent race at Gateway, due to intentional retaliation directed towards Denny Hamlin the weekend prior. After a 21st-place outing in his only start, Corey LaJoie was called upon as the substitute driver for the No. 9 and wound up 21st as well.

“I was prepping for the race this week and, obviously, I missed this race last year,” Elliott, starting 17th, said. “Goodness, boy, they struggled to make any ground, so, better hope your strategy is good, better hope you qualify good and if you don’t, you’re going to have something go your way because you’re not driving from the back.”

As for Bowman, he’s probably had the toughest go at WWT Raceway with finishes of 13th and 26th, respectively. The silver lining is that he and his No. 48 team do have two starts under their belt – unlike Elliott – but how much of a benefit can that be with the organization-wide struggles at this track?

Bowman’s teammates have a bit of breathing room, as all three have found victory lane already this season, while he attempts to snap a 75-race winless streak. At this point in time, the 31-year-old has actually been one of the most consistent drivers in the sport, riding a five-race top-10 streak into Gateway, but sitting eighth in the standings.

According to Bowman, this weekend at Gateway will be the true test for his team, as he rolls off 14th for the Enjoy Illinois 300.

“For us, the summer’s always been a tough time, so this race track’s been pretty tough on us over the years,” Bowman said. “I think it’s an important time for us to step up a little bit and continue the pace and the finishes that we’ve been having lately. 

“I think this place is a good test for us,” Bowman added. “We’re in a good position in points, but don’t have any room to have any of that slip away. Just got to maintain the intensity that we’ve had lately and hopefully we’re good this weekend.

“I don’t think anybody’s really comfortable. Hendrick Motorsports has a notebook for everywhere except here. Really, like, as a company, (we) kind of missed it twice.”

While Saturday’s on-track activities and comments from some of the drivers cast a shadow of doubt in their chances for success at Gateway, this is still Hendrick Motorsports.

HMS leads every statistical category through 14 races including Byron tied for most wins with three, Larson most laps led with 648, Elliott the best average finish at 9.6, with both Bowman and Byron tying for the most top-10 with nine.

The other caveat is practice and qualifying were accompanied by overcast conditions with slight precipitation and mist at 8:30 a.m. local time. Sunday’s Enjoy Illinois 300 will take place at 3:30 p.m. ET (FS1, PRN) with sunshine and humidity looking to place a factor.

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