Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.
No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.
Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.
“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.
“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”
Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.
“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.
“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”
The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.
Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).
That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.
“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.
“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”
Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.
Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).
These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.
“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.
“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.
“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”