The four Hendrick Motorsports drivers have the same equipment and access to the same knowledge base. So why is Chase Elliott the only driver having a better season than last year?
Let’s start by comparing finishes for the first 22 races of the 2021 and 2022 seasons.
The table below summarizes finishes and poles.
Elliott has four wins, more than anyone else in the Cup Series. That’s how many wins Kyle Larson had at this time last year, but he has only one this year.
To finish first …
The biggest metric that sticks out when comparing the four HMS drivers is DNFs.
DNFs are up this year in the Cup Series. While 141 cars failed to finish races so far this year, there were only 97 DNFs last year after 22 races.
Transforming Atlanta into a superspeedway accounts for some of the increase. The two 2022 Atlanta races had a total of 22 DNFs, whereas the two races in 2021 contributed only three.
Accidents and spins — not all of which result in DNFs — are also up in 2022.
- This year, drivers experienced 81 accidents versus 62 in the first 22 races of 2021.
- Drivers spun 45 times in 2022 compared to 15 over the same number of races in 2021.
And those are just the accidents big enough to cause cautions.
The official caution tally for the Indianapolis road course cites one accident. But aggressive driving caused collisions that would have merited cautions at ovals.
I counted 23 accidents, spins and cars off track. There’s some subjectivity to this count, but I think it’s a reasonable representation. I did the same for the other road courses, and checked to see if Hendrick drivers had issues at other races that didn’t show up in the official caution lists.
Finally, I tabulated penalties.
The hardest part was figuring out how to put all that on one graph that didn’t look like a Kandinsky painting.
On the following graphs…
- White bars are DNFs.
- Diagonal hash marks indicate an accident that caused a caution.
- Crosshatches indicate an accident, spin or other contact that didn’t merit a caution. I included pitting for actual or suspected loose wheels, and exceptionally long pit stops.
- I put a ‘P’ by races with one or more penalty.
- I put ‘TTB’ for races the driver started at the rear due to a violation
The Cup Series had no clear front runner until Elliott put together five races without major contact or penalties. He became the first driver with three wins at the second Atlanta race — the 19th race of the season. That’s the longest it’s ever taken for one driver to reach three wins.
Over a stretch from Nashville to Pocono, Elliott won three races and finished second in the others. He’s the one driver at HMS having a strong upward trend going into the playoffs.
When you dominate a series the way Larson did last year, there’s little room to improve. Last year, Elliott trailed Larson. This year, it’s mostly the other way around.
The average finish in Larson’s five DNFs is 33.4, while the average finish in completed races is 10.1. His overall average finish in the first 22 races of 2022 is 14.3 — more than four positions worse than his average finishing position in 2021.
Slow starts are not new for Larson, though. Of his 10 wins in 2021, six happened in the last 14 races, including four of the last five playoff races.
Larson has the fourth-highest penalty total in the Cup Series. (I don’t include pitting before pit road is open.) Three of his nine penalties forced him to start races from the rear of the field.
When Larson isn’t hindered by accidents, penalties or loose wheels, he usually has top-10 finishes. But he’s only got seven of those races, compared to 11 for Elliott.
The good news is that Larson and his team can try to reduce penalties. He (and every other driver) also must make judicious choices about when to engage and when it’s smarter to just let another driver go. We may see strategy designed to keep drivers away from congestion on pit road — or on the track.
The last two drivers have average finishes out of the top 15 and average running positions out of the top 10. Their loop data numbers point out some weaknesses. The numbers in the table below for all but the closing stats are rank relative to other drivers. The closing stat is in units of position.
Byron hasn’t finished in the top five since his Martinsville win. He has 10 ‘clean’ races, but lacks speed even when unhindered by penalties or contact. He’s 10th in green flag speed, the slowest of all Hendrick cars.
While Byron has avoided being in a lot of caution-causing accidents, he’s definitely made a lot of contact during races that has hurt his finishes. That contact may have contributed to his losing 52 positions in the last 10% of races this year, the second largest loss of closing positions in the series.
On the positive side, Byron is second in overall laps led, trailing Elliott by just 47. The majority of those laps, however, were led in the early part of the season. Byron’s problems are not as easily fixed at Larson’s.
Bowman secured his playoff spot with a win at Las Vegas. Of nine races without accidents or penalties, five finishes were outside the top 10. He has four DNFs in the last six races. Decreasing penalties would help, but won’t make up for lack of speed. He’s ranked a surprising 29th in speed by segment, which measures how fast drivers are relative to the field.
Bowman has the best closing record in HMS with a net gain of 27 positions in the last 10% of races over the season. He’s only led 18 laps this year.
I think what we’re seeing — not only at Hendrick Motorsports, but at the other top companies — is that drivers in top equipment used to be able to compensate for penalties and minor accidents because their cars were better. The parity of the Next Gen car makes coming back from a mistake that much harder, even for the best drivers.