Ten-win Hendrick Motorsports still needs to maximize its next four weeks


On May 18, two days after a sweep of the first four finishing positions at Dover, Hendrick Motorsports assembled over 350 of its employees for a team picture to commemorate a unique moment for an organization rich with history-making endeavors.

But if Hendrick’s four teams aren’t careful, the Dover sweep and subsequent family portrait might serve as their biggest collective highlight of the 2021 season.

Four races remain in what’s been an indomitable regular season for Hendrick and its season-long bellwether, Kyle Larson, specifically. The slate stands to be a fruitful one:

  • Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen, a road course on which Chase Elliott is the two-time defending winner across events utilizing two different rules packages.
  • Aug. 15 on the Indianapolis road course, a new track but one that should cater to Hendrick’s recent road racing strength, with also includes a Larson victory at Sonoma earlier this summer.
  • Aug. 22 at Michigan, a 2-mile track, on which Larson is a three-time winner, that utilizes the 550-horsepower package in which few other Cup drivers are as quantifiably productive.
  • Aug. 28 at Daytona, a drafting track on which the racing and results are often volatile but where Hendrick, having produced the fastest car in four of the last six points-paying races there, tends to have a speed advantage, however useful it might become.

A response from Hendrick across the next four races is necessary after what transpired over two weeks ago in New Hampshire, a paradigm-shifting event that embellished the difference between organizations on relevant 750-horsepower tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing secured its first victory of the season and the corresponding playoff spot for Aric Almirola, while Team Penske won both stages and led nearly 40% of the race with both Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney.

Even with Elliott leading 53 laps and Larson earning a seventh-place finish, the effort was poor relative to other teams, which came after a rainy start altered the day’s plans for three Joe Gibbs Racing cars. For Hendrick’s most decorated talents, there’s plenty on which to chew.

Surely, Elliott was better than the 18th-place finish he earned. But Larson might not have been as good as his result indicated, a not-so-subtle reminder that while he’s bulletproof on 550-horsepower tracks, there’s valid reason to be skeptical of his imperviousness on most 750-horsepower tracks. That includes places like Phoenix, Martinsville and Richmond, which hold positions of prominence on the playoff schedule.

Relative to those he most closely races against, competition draws closer to him on the 750-horsepower tracks, visible in his stat profile:

A well-rounded driver, Larson’s statistical output, which includes his Production in Equal Equipment Rating, is more pronounced at the bigger facilities. Just one of his four points-paying wins, at Las Vegas, came on playoff tracks, while just two Hendrick victories out of 10 this season — Alex Bowman’s at Richmond — holds relevant bearing on playoff performance.

Hitting a double-digit mark in the win column is a triumph for certain. However, with the playoff slate skewing toward 750-horsepower tracks (five of the 10 are on 750-horsepower ovals, while a sixth takes place on a road course) that apparently warrants a more specialized research and development effort across the board. Hendrick’s is a dominance that, to this point, matters less to the championship landscape than meets the eye.

Hendrick’s teams led a grand total of one lap this spring at Phoenix, the site of the season finale. The fastest of the four cars was Larson’s, which ranked fifth in average median lap time, a ranking that simply won’t hack it in a winner-take-all scenario. To wit, Denny Hamlin, who had the fourth-fastest car at Phoenix last fall, insisted, “Our car didn’t have enough speed to go up there and compete” for the win and the championship.

William Byron led nine laps on Hendrick’s behalf at Martinsville, but that’s all; second-place finisher Elliott failed to lead in a race in which Hamlin and Blaney were the most memorable performers, combining to lead nearly 87% of the event, while Martin Truex Jr. swiped the win in the waning laps. Larson finished fifth on what he admits is one of his problem tracks, a facility “totally backwards” from what he saw in his formative years of dirt racing.

Shut out completely from leading at Darlington, the site of the playoff opener, Hendrick couldn’t unseat Truex from the top spot, even with second-place finisher Larson. Byron finished fourth, while Elliott finished sixth.

It’s Elliott — not Larson — who arguably represents Hendrick’s most championship-ready threat, if his statistical splits are considered. He fares better than Larson in production, surplus passing and crash avoidance on 750-horsepower tracks:

Elliott’s dip in 750-horsepower speed output — he ranks seventh now, and third among Hendrick’s four drivers, after ranking first in the series last year — is a bit concerning on the surface, though, there is some daylight. His average best lap ranking — capturing the average ranking of a team’s best lap in each race — places him fourth in the series and tops among Hendrick drivers, suggesting there’s unrealized potential for better output during these crucial stops along the final 10-race stretch.

That swoon in speed during the regular season impacted his race finishes and points accumulation. Whereas Larson secured 32 usable playoff points — possibly enough to carry him through the penultimate playoff round if he doesn’t win at either Kansas or Texas — Elliott holds just 11 at this juncture (Byron has just eight while Bowman has 15). The upcoming four-race slate is an opportunity for Elliott to pad this safety net. It’s a proposition he should take seriously; if his speed output doesn’t return to 2020 heights, grasping clean air could prove difficult despite his reliable statistical outlay and best efforts.

While Hendrick’s dominance this season is almost exclusively on tracks that don’t totally translate to the playoff schedule, points its four teams procured through the first 22 races and points that could be earned in the next four weeks will mean everything in boosting the prospects of playoff survival, which consists of three different knockout rounds, including a semi-final trio of tracks that shockingly weeded out last season’s most prolific winner.

Going through the motions these next four races, playoff tickets already punched, isn’t an option. The remainder of the regular season should mean just as much to Hendrick Motorsports as it does to winless teams on the cut line, its yearlong dominance not at all a guarantee to be replicated during the season’s home stretch.

COTA Truck starting lineup: Ross Chastain wins pole


Ross Chastain will start on the pole for Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas.

Chastain earned the top starting spot in Friday’s qualifying with a lap of 91.877 mph. He’ll be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (91.490 mph).

More: COTA Truck starting lineup

Ty Majeski qualified third with a lap of 91.225 mph. Rookie Nick Sanchez (90.993) will start fourth, and Christian Eckes (90.937) will complete the top five.

Alex Bowman failed to make the race. Bowman had a flat right front on his qualifying lap.

Tyler Reddick leads Cup practice at COTA


Tyler Reddick posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Cup practice at Circuit of the Americas.

Reddick, who won two road course races last season, topped the field in his 23XI Racing Toyota with a lap of 92.989 mph. Kyle Larson was next, posting a lap of 92.618 mph around the 3.41-mile road course.

MORE: COTA Cup practice results

Ross Chastain, who won this race a year ago, was third on the speed chart in practice with a lap of 92.520 mph. He was followed by Kyle Busch (92.498 mph) and Daniel Suarez (92.461 mph).

Jordan Taylor, subbing for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, was 10th on the speed chart in practice after a lap of 92.404 mph.

Former world champion Jenson Button, driving for Rick Ware Racing, was 28th in practice with a lap of 91.759 mph. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, driving the Project 91 car for Trackhouse Racing, was 32nd in practice after a lap of 91.413 mph.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, driving in his first race for Legacy Motor Club since the Daytona 500, was 36th in practice after a lap of 91.072 mph. IndyCar driver Conor Daly was last among the 39 cars in practice with a lap of 90.095 mph.

Cup qualifying is Saturday. The series races Sunday.


Saturday COTA Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


Austin Hill, the dominant driver in the NASCAR Xfinity Series through the early weeks of the season, will be looking for his first Xfinity road course win Saturday.

Hill has won three of the season’s first five races, scoring victories at Daytona, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

Hill has been close in previous road course runs. He has a second at COTA, a third at Portland, a fourth at Road America and a ninth at Indianapolis.

MORE: Dr. Diandra takes a look at top Cup road course drivers

Kyle Busch and AJ Allmendinger own wins in the previous Xfinity races at COTA.

Allmendinger and three other Cup Series regulars — Aric Almirola, William Byron and Ty Gibbs — are scheduled to race in the Xfinity event.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 5:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled at 5:19 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 2 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Jordan Thiessen of Pit Boss Grills at 5 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by recording artist Payton Keller at 5:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 46 laps (156 miles) on the 3.41-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 14. Stage 2 ends at Lap 30.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 5 p.m. … NASCAR RaceDay airs at 4 p.m. on FS1. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 4:30 p.m. and can be heard at goprn.com. …SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mainly sunny. Temperature of 82 at race time. No chance of rain.

LAST TIME: AJ Allmendinger won last March’s Xfinity race at COTA. Austin Hill was two seconds behind in second place. Cole Custer finished third.

NASCAR Friday schedule at Circuit of the Americas


NASCAR’s new Cup Series aerodynamic package for short tracks and road courses will be tested in competition on a road circuit for the first time this weekend as the tour stops at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

All three major national series will be in action at the 3.41-mile, 20-turn track this weekend. The schedule begins Friday with practice for all three series and qualifying for Xfinity and Trucks.

MORE: Drivers say North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will be challenging

The Friday practice was added for Cup teams because of the new competition package, providing 50 minutes of on-track time for adjustments. Teams also will be racing with a new tire compound this weekend.

Chase Elliott (2021) and Ross Chastain (2022) are winners from the previous Cup races at COTA. Elliott won the inaugural event in a race shortened by rain, and Chastain won after a last-lap battle with AJ Allmendinger and Alex Bowman. The victory was Chastain’s first in the series.

A look at Friday’s schedule:

Circuit of the Americas (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Thunderstorms in the morning. Mostly sunny later. High of 87 with an 80% chance of rain.

Friday, March 24

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 11:30 a.m. .- 6:30 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 1:30 – 8:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Cup practice (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 8 p.m. on FS1)
  • 4:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck practice (No live broadcast)
  • 5 – 6 p.m. — Truck qualifying (No live broadcast; tape-delayed version airing at 9 p.m. on FS1)
  • 6:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 7 – 8 p.m. — Xfinity qualifying (FS1)