‘When it rains, it pours’: Hendrick Motorsports working through a turbulent season

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INDIANAPOLIS – The team hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in three consecutive Sprint Cup races (for the first time in nearly 16 years). One of its star drivers will miss the second of at least three straight races with a possible concussion. And none of its four Chevrolets will start in the top 10 in Sunday’s Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The last time that happened was 2001 … when Hendrick Motorsports won the Brickyard 400 with Jeff Gordon (who started 27th).

If there’s a good omen or a silver lining – and the most successful team in NASCAR history could use either lately – that might be as good as any for Rick Hendrick, who has endured his share of ups and downs in 32 years of team ownership.

“It seems like when it rains, it pours,” he said Friday. “I’ve been doing this long enough that you can’t stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we’ve made a lot of improvements. I think we’ll see some, hopefully, this weekend. But you never like having a curveball.”

The curveball at Indy is the absence of Earnhardt, who has been sidelined since last week with concussion-like symptoms. His No. 88 Chevrolet will be driven at Indy and next week at Pocono Raceway by Gordon, who temporarily has ended an eight-month retirement.

But the driver swap is only the latest of many worries recently for Hendrick, which has slipped to second in class this season among Chevrolet teams behind Stewart-Haas Racing, has a shop brimming with wrecked cars (“Our place looks like a salvage yard,” Hendrick jokes) and has been unusually error-prone over the summer.

That’s the bad news.

The encouraging news is that everybody just stepped up and is working harder,” Hendrick said. “We’re determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It’s kind of our ‘refuse to lose’ belief. But we didn’t need this, for sure.”

Into the breach steps the man who once made “Refuse to Lose” a motto synonymous with winning championships.

Though Gordon has been shaking off the rust this weekend, the four-time series champion is a record five-time winner at the Brickyard who could help troubleshoot where Hendrick’s Chevrolets are missing. The team’s top Indy qualifier Saturday was Jimmie Johnson, whose 13th starting position marked the third time this season that the team failed to advance a car to the final round of qualifying.

“The sharpness has just been off of the Hendrick cars,” NBCSN analyst Ray Evernham, who won three titles as Gordon’s crew chief, said on NASCAR America this past week. “It’ll be good to get Jeff back in one of the cars and give some of his input to that, to the engineering staff as well.”

Johnson said a “fresh set of eyes” might help in evaluating the strength of Hendrick’s cars and engines, especially with Gordon’s experience in the Fox Sports booth in the first 16 races.

“Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle,” Johnson said. “I know he’s formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure.”

The Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row Racing and the Fords of Team Penske have been the standard bearers since Johnson’s March 20 victory at Auto Club Speedway, combining to win 11 of the past 13 races.

“For sure, we’ve been chasing them for a while,” Johnson said Sunday in New Hampshire after finishing 12th. “We brought some new ideas here and thought that we closed the gap. But we got a whole new fleet of cars we’re rolling out, and a lot of stuff is starting to come out of the production line right now. We definitely feel like we’re behind trying to catch up.”

Is there time to catch up before the playoffs begin in seven races?

“You never know,” he said. “I wish this was two to three months ago even yet because it just takes a while to get stuff going. A win can turn things around and get momentum moving in the right direction.

“And then the Chase is so different the way it is now. There’s still time, but we need to get moving.”

The best measuring stick for its improvement might be SHR, which will move to Ford next year after getting chassis and engines since well before Tony Stewart joined the team as a co-owner in 2009.

Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick each have won to qualify for the playoffs while Hendrick’s only winner this year is Johnson.

While the impending departure of SHR’s four cars will leave a multimillion-dollar void in Hendrick’s budget to be filled through new customers, the move already might be having a competitive impact.

The teams aren’t sharing the same setup data as under a previously stronger technical alliance (and with SHR already running some of its new chassis, it wouldn’t be helpful anyway). The lessened cooperation might be hurting both teams, but it seems to be having a more negative impact on Hendrick.

“Eight teams are better than four every day,” said Rodney Childers, the SHR crew chief for Harvick. “A lot of times you’re not going to use everything that you get from each other, but at least you can glance over and say, ‘Well these guys have this air pressure, and these guys have this setup, and these guys learn this at the wind tunnel,’ and both teams fed off each other for so many years.

“When you split that apart, it’s a huge loss for all of us. Not only them but for us. (Hendrick is) a great company. They’ve got great people over there. I think they’ll be just fine. It’s just this first year of not sharing anything together has been hard on both teams, I believe.”

Even despite the weaker results, some are less than convinced about any sign of demise for an organization that has 242 Sprint Cup wins and a record 15 NASCAR championships (11 in Cup)

After winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth slightly scoffed at the notion that Hendrick was on a tier below Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, and SHR.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Kenseth said. “It’s hard for me to ever feel bad for Hendrick. They’ve won a lot of championships, a lot of races, ever since I’ve been in the sport for sure. We’ve finished second to them a few times in the championship. They’ve been fast and you’ll definitely have to get through those guys to try to win a race or a championship.”

While Hendrick’s cars seem to have been faster lately, things invariably have gone wrong. At Daytona International Speedway, Johnson, Earnhardt, and Chase Elliott all were involved in the same wreck. At Kentucky Speedway, Johnson and Elliott crashed again.

Last week at New Hampshire, Johnson started on the pole position but placed 12th after sliding through his pit stall. After running well throughout the race in place of Earnhardt, Alex Bowman suffered a flat tire and smacked the wall, just moments before Elliott also caught a flat.

“Last week is kind of a good example of some of the difficulties we’ve had,” Johnson said. “We had competitive cars all running in the top 11, and in one corner, we lose two of them.

“It’s been tough, but I think we have a good foundation to build from. We have respectable finishes in our cars, but nobody wants to be a decent finisher or a respectable finisher. … I guess we’re tired of looking (at) the silver lining, and I’ve lost a bunch of cars here recently. I’ve been in the wall a bunch. So, we’ve got to quit that.”

The six-time series champion has made some uncharacteristic errors recently, wrecking two cars (in practice and the race) at Kentucky Speedway. At New Hampshire, he slid his No. 48 Chevrolet through the pits on his final stop, negating a potential top five or 10.

Johnson said the mistakes are because he and the Hendrick teams are pressing.

“I’ve been at 110 percent, and you make too many mistakes there,” he said. “And I think our team has, too. So, that’s one thing we have recognized, and we’re going to really try to dial back and make sure that we run where we should. If we have a fifth-place car that week, let’s be sure that we at least finish fifth.”

Gordon, who remains an equity partner in Hendrick, said it’s an approach that has worked for the competition.

“When Hendrick Motorsports is dominating this series, that highly motivates your competition; and they go to work,” Gordon said. “And sometimes you get torn down while you’re getting your butt kicked. But you start to find a way to get yourself better than you were before and hopefully get yourself in position.

“With the resources and the type of people that Hendrick Motorsports has, it’s sort of what’s happening to us right now. We’re being highly motivated by other organizations and teams that are out there and are getting great results. But we’re too good of an organization not to find a way to only make ourselves better and stronger and our cars faster to get back to that place.”

Dr. Diandra: Is 2023 the season for a Ricky Stenhouse Jr. redemption?


Coming into 2022, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two career Cup Series wins in 364 starts. But both wins — and his career-high 13th-place season finish — happened back in 2017.

Stenhouse was unceremoniously dropped by Roush Fenway Racing in 2020 and landed with JTG Daugherty Racing. He made the news every now and then at a superspeedway but could be counted upon to head up season-ending lists of drivers involved in the most accidents. In the years Stenhouse hasn’t been at the top of the list, he’s been near the top.

DNFs and accidents have plagued Stenhouse throughout his NASCAR career. Jack Roush went so far as to park the Mississippi native in his early days in the Xfinity Series because he tore up so much equipment.

Stenhouse redeemed himself, going on to win two Xfinity championships.

From the way his 2023 season has started, it looks as though Stenhouse might be on a similar mission of redemption this year in the Cup Series.

Finishing races

Stenhouse started the 2023 season in the best possible way – winning the Daytona 500. But drivers from less-funded teams who win early superspeedway races usually settle to the bottom of the rankings by now.

Stenhouse hasn’t. He ranks 13th heading into Sunday’s race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Standings aren’t as good a ruler this year as they usually are because of drivers missing races and teams incurring penalties. But Stenhouse’s statistics back up his ranking.

Stenhouse has finished every race this year on track, as opposed to in the garage or on the hook. Only Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie have achieved the same distinction.

In 11 of those 14 races, Stenhouse finished on the lead lap. That’s the same number of lead-lap finishes as William Byron. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are tied for most races finished on the lead lap with 13 each.

This time last year, Stenhouse had already racked up seven of the series-leading 18 caution-causing incidents he would be involved in for the season. Runner-up Chase Elliott had 15 incidents.

Going into Gateway this year, Stenhouse has been involved in only two accidents (Talladega and Charlotte) and had a tire go out at Darlington.

Approaching his career best

I compare three years in Stenhouse’s career in the table below: the 2017 season — his best to date — along with last year and the 14 races run so far this year.

A table comparing loop data stats for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. showing his path to redemption

Stenhouse’s current average finishing position of 13.5 ties with Christopher Bell for sixth best in the Cup Series. That’s 9.3 positions better than Stenhouse’s 2022 average. He’s even beating his 2017 average by 3.6 positions.

Qualifying results are down a bit from 2017 — but remember that those numbers are from the days when NASCAR allowed multiple practice sessions. Stenhouse is only two positions worse relative to 2017, but 7.6 positions better than last year when it comes to establishing his spot on the starting grid.

Stenhouse’s average running position is comparable to 2017 and 2.8 positions better than 2022. He ranks 20th among full-time Cup Series drivers in average running position. Although it’s an improvement, it’s still more than double William Byron’s series-leading 9.1 average running position this year.

More interesting is the difference between Stenhouse’s average running position his average finishing position. Some drivers run better than they finish. Stenhouse is doing the opposite.

In 2017, Stenhouse finished about 1.4 positions better than he ran. This year, he’s gaining an average of about five positions from where he runs.

One might argue this gain results from the plethora of late-race incidents this year that have removed drivers in the front of the field from contention. But Stenhouse deserves credit for putting himself in a position to benefit from those events.

Stenhouse’s green-flag speed rank is 11th among full-time Cup Series drivers. His 15.3 average, however, is 1.7 positions worse than 10th-place Kyle Busch. Still, it’s impressive that JTG Daugherty is right there in the mix with much better-funded teams. William Byron again has the best average green-flag speed rank at 7.9.

Consistently strong finishes

It’s not uncommon for a mid-pack driver to win a superspeedway race. But Stenhouse’s Daytona 500 win appears to be something more. The table below summarizes his wins and finishes for the same three years.

A table comparing finishes for 2017, 2022 and 2023 showing Ricky Stenhouse Jr's redemption attemptsThe difference between last year and this year is striking.

In 2022, Stenhouse finished in the top 20 in 12 of 36 races. He’s already matched that mark this year. He earns top-20 finishes 85.7% of the time in 2023 compared to 33.3% last year. Top-20 finishes aren’t the same as contending for a championship. But they’re a first step.

Stenhouse finished 2017 with nine top-10 races. With about 60% of the season remaining, he’s already earned five top-10 finishes this year.

What’s changed? The Next Gen car is one factor, but it didn’t make much difference for Stenhouse last year. I would point instead to Stenhouse’s reunion with Mike Kelley as his crew chief.

Kelley co-piloted both of Stenhouse’s Xfinity championships in 2011 and ’12. Although Kelley worked with Stenhouse and previous crew chief Brian Pattie since 2020, this is the first year Kelley is back up on the pit box.

Together, they’re basically halfway to matching Stenhouse’s best year.

And another step closer to redemption.

Portland Xfinity race results, driver points

Portland Xfinity results
Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

Cole Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when the top three cars made contact and went on to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway. Custer is the 10th different winner in 13 races this season.

MORE: Portland Xfinity race results

MORE: Driver points after Portland Xfinity race

JR Motorsports took the next three spots: Justin Allgaier placed second, Sam Mayer was third and Josh Berry was fourth. Austin Hill completed the top five.

John Hunter Nemechek remains the points leader after 13 races. He has a 14-point lead on Hill. Nemechek leads Allgaier by 44 points.

Cole Custer wins Xfinity race at Portland in overtime


Cole Custer held off Justin Allgaier at the finish to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in overtime at Portland International Raceway. It is Custer’s first victory of the season.

JR Motorsports placed second, third and fourth with Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Josh Berry. Austin Hill finished fifth.

MORE: Race results, driver points

Custer went from fourth to first on the overtime restart when Parker Kligerman, who restarted third, attempted to pass Allgaier, who was leading. Sheldon Creed was on the outside of Allgaier. All three cars made contact entering Turn 1, allowing Custer to slip by. Creed finished seventh. Kligerman placed 14th.

Custer won the second stage when John Hunter Nemechek made contact with Creed’s car while racing for the lead on the final lap of the stage. The contact spun Creed and Custer inched by Nemechek at the line.

Early in the final stage, Creed gained revenge with contact that spun Nemechek, who went on to finish 10th. A few laps later, Nemechek and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith had issues. Smith spun Nemechek. After getting back around, Nemechek quickly caught Smith and turned into Smith’s car, damaging it.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Cole Custer

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Despite the contact on the overtime restart, runner-up Justin Allgaier managed to score his fourth consecutive top-three finish. … Sam Mayer’s third-place finish is his best on a road course. … Austin Hill’s fifth-place finish gives him four consecutive top-five results.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Hemric finished 33rd after a fire in his car. … Riley Herbst placed 32nd after an engine issue. After opening the season with six top 10s in a row, Herbst has gone seven races in a row without a top 10.

NEXT: The series competes June 10 at Sonoma Raceway (8 p.m. ET on FS1).

Truck race results at WWT Raceway: Grant Enfinger wins


Grant Enfinger took the lead when the leaders wrecked in the final laps and held off the field in overtime to win Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway.

It is Enfinger’s second win in the last five races. He also collected a $50,000 bonus for winning the Triple Truck Challenge.

MORE: Truck race results

MORE: Driver points after WWT Raceway

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Stewart Friesen, Carson Hocevar and Chase Purdy.

Ty Majeski and Zane Smith wrecked while racing for the lead with six laps to go. Majeski, running on the inside of Smith, slid up the track and clipped Smith’s truck. Both hit the wall. That put Enfinger in the lead.

Smith finished 20th. Majeski placed 30th.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Stewart Friesen

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Grant Enfinger’s victory is his fourth top 10 in the last five races. … Carson Hocevar’s fourth-place finish is his fourth consecutive top-five result. … Stewart Friesen’s third-place finish moved him into a playoff spot with four races left in the regular season. … Matt DiBenedetto‘s sixth-place finish is his third consecutive top 10. … Jesse Love finished ninth in his series debut.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ty Majeski had a chance to take the points lead with series leader Corey Heim out because of illness, but Majeski’s 30th-place finish after running at the front most of the day, leaves him behind Heim. … Hailie Deegan finished 32nd after contact sent her truck into the wall hard. … After finishing a career-high third last week at Charlotte, Dean Thompson placed 34th Saturday due to an engine issue.

NEXT: The series races June 23 at Nashville Superspeedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1)