Somehow, someway Hendrick Motorsports put three of its four drivers in the Cup playoffs.
The regular season ended with only Elliott locked in with a victory and Johnson and Bowman the last drivers in on points. Johnson enters the playoffs in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career (49 races).
The organization, which owns 12 championships and 250 wins, enters the 10-race playoff with just one win this season and since last year’s Brickyard 400, which was won by Kasey Kahne in July.
That adds up to arguably one of the worst seasons in its history, which began in 1984.
Just ask owner Rick Hendrick.
“It’s probably been the toughest year that I’ve experienced in a long, long time,” Hendrick said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “Without race wins, without leading races.”
Since 1984 (three wins), Hendrick’s worst seasons win wise have been 1985 (none), 1987 (three), 1988 (four), 1990 (one), 1991 (three), 1992-93 (one each) and 2000 and 2017 (four each).
The current four-car team, which includes rookie William Byron, has 12 top fives, 34 top 10s and has led only 372 of 67,611 laps through the first 26 races.
Hendrick attributes those struggles in part to a confluence of changes for the team and the sport this season.
“I think I take a lot of the blame there,” Hendrick said. “We underestimated the amount of effort and the distraction it was when we decided to build this team center and put all the engineers and all the crew chiefs together.”
Before this year, HMS split its four teams into two different shops at its Concord, North Carolina, campus.
“It’s the right thing to do and we did it in the offseason,” Hendrick said. “But it spilled over a little bit into the start of the season.”
That change merged with the addition of Bowman and Byron to the full-time driver stable as the team transitioned to the Chevrolet Camaro. The new model has visited Victory Lane twice this season, with Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500 and Elliott at Watkins Glen.
“We underestimated the work that we needed to do with the new car,” Hendrick admitted. “We were late getting the Hawkeye (OSS inspection system) installed at our shop. I look back and it was just too many changes, too many things. We just got behind.”
Hendrick said “if it could go wrong with us this year, it’s gone wrong at different times,” but that he “can see the momentum coming.”
“With the 48 (Johnson), I think they just were affected as much as anyone with all the changes and we’ve not been able to get back to our stride,” Hendrick said. “Chase getting a win really lifted the whole organization and when we had those good runs at Bristol (Elliott placed third and Johnson eighth), everything that gave us a little momentum has felt good. We just got to finish it off.”
Elliott enters the playoffs off a 15th-place finish at Indianapolis. That was his first finish outside the top 10 in six races. He leads the team with eight top fives and 14 top 10s.
Johnson, who is seeking his eighth championship, has two top fives and eight top 10s. Bowman has two top fives and nine top 10s.
“I’ve had some years where we peaked early, but we haven’t come close to peaking this year,” Hendrick said. “We’ve been playing catchup and we still got work to do. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting better.”
Hendrick was asked about his confidence level in Johnson being able to earn a record eighth title
“In ’16, I didn’t think we had a shot and we won it,” Hendrick said. “Anything’s possible. We’ve got some good tracks for us coming up. It’s not like one of those years where I thought it was ours to lose for sure. Things have got to go our way. We’ve got to be lucky in some cases and we’ve got to keep improving. I’ve seen this before. Anything can happen. You just got to show up and show up with your game face on and get it done.”