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

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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.