It took four races, but Hendrick Motorsports showed signs of competitiveness Sunday at ISM Raceway.
Chase Elliott became the first Hendrick driver to earn a top five in 2018 as he finished third in the TicketGuardian 500.
The result comes after pit strategy late in the race put Elliott in position to take the lead after a swift-green-flag pit stop.
But Elliott was passed by race winner Kevin Harvick well before leader Ryan Newman pitted with 23 laps to go. Elliott then fell behind runner-up Kyle Busch.
“We had a good car, solid,” Elliott told Fox. “(Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) made a good call there at the end. We had a good pit stop there to give us the lead and just felt I needed a little bit more forward drive there to put the power down in front of (Harvick). I had pretty good turn those last two runs, before that I wasn’t turning good enough and had too good of forward bite. (Harvick) was definitely the car to beat. … There was a lot of laps left and I tried my best to hold him off as long as I could. I felt like him and Kyle (Busch) had just a little bit on us.”
The previous best finish for the No. 9 Chevrolet in the first three races this season was 10th at Atlanta. Elliott wrecked at Daytona and Las Vegas.
Sunday’s result was Elliott best since Cup’s last visit to the 1-mile track in November when he finished second to Matt Kenseth.
Hendrick’s other three Chevys finished in the top 15, with rookie William Byron placing a career-best 12th, was followed by Alex Bowman (13th) and Jimmie Johnson (14th).
Byron also led 15 laps, the first of his Cup career. He took the lead with a two-tire stop under caution on Lap 195.
“I think it just showed myself that I can do it; that I can do those restarts up there,” the 2017 Xfinity Series champion said. “I know I have the pace up there to run until our handling kind of took over, but I felt like if we can really start to hone in on what we need a little better we are going to be right there. It’s going to take a little bit of work, but it was fun to at least be up there a little bit.”
Bowman started the day in fourth, but his race started to unravel during his first pit stop when he came out 15th. Then the driver cooling systems on the No. 88 Chevrolet failed.
Bowman was called for a speeding penalty on Lap 147.
“It was a frustrating day,” Bowman said. “I don’t know if we had brake fans or not because we didn’t have any other fans, everything inside the car quit. My helmet blower quit, everything quit. It was hot. I burnt my feet pretty good, but the race car wasn’t bad. Just my track bar quit when everything else quit, so I had no adjustment all day too. We overcame a lot. I sped on pit road, when I swerved to miss some debris. Had some bad pit stops and rebounded from it. We will take 13th for as rough as today was.”
Bowman and Johnson have yet to finish in the top 10 through four races.
“We got up to eighth and then had some pit strategy kind of work against us and fell back into the teens again, and it’s just so stinking hard to pass,” Johnson said. “I think if we could have stayed up there in that top 10 where we were, we would have finished there, but once we got mired back and had to start all over again, it was just a long grind.”