Editor’s note: NASCAR.com continues its countdown of team previews for the Monster Energy Series season, ranked in order of best finish in last year’s owner standings. Today’s feature: Hendrick Motorsports and drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson.
Engine: Hendrick Engines
Drivers: Chase Elliott, No. 9; William Byron, No. 24; Jimmie Johnson, No. 48; Alex Bowman, No. 88
Crew chiefs: Alan Gustafson (Elliott), Chad Knaus (Byron), Kevin Meendering (Johnson), Greg Ives (Bowman)
2018 standings: Elliott, 6th in final standings (eliminated in Round of 8); Johnson, 14th in final standings (eliminated in Round of 16); Bowman, 16th in final standings (eliminated in Round of 12); Byron, 23rd in final standings
What’s new: The big change at Hendrick Motorsports is the organization’s crew chief shakeup that was announced last October. The seven-time championship pairing of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus has been split apart after 17 years with each tackling new challenges. There is sure to be a friendly competition between both sides to see who can reach Victory Lane first without the other by his side.
Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering, who comes over to Hendrick from JR Motorsports. Meendering has plenty of experience in the organization as an assistant engineer and engineer from 2008 to 2015. This will be Meendering’s first season atop the box at the Cup level following three years with Elliott Sadler.
“I think he has been rejuvenated,” Meendering said of Johnson. “After the struggles he had last year I think he wants to win. That is his mentality. He is going to do whatever it takes. He is going to push himself past the limit. We will be back in Victory Lane this year.”
Knaus moves over to guide rising talent William Byron in his second full-time season at the sport’s top level. The move to the No. 24 is a homecoming of sorts for Knaus as well, as he was a member of the “Rainbow Warriors” crew under Ray Evernham in the mid-1990s that was instrumental in leading NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon to multiple championships.
“You guys don’t understand my passion for the 24 team; it just goes so deep,” Knaus said. “It’s in my blood. Even when we were winning championships for the 48, I’m still paying attention to what the 24 was doing. So, to be back on the 24 car is really a dream come true. When I came to Hendrick Motorsports, my goal was to be crew chief on the 24 car.”
Outlook: Last year was a time of transition for Hendrick Motorsports as it consolidated all four teams into one shop, had a new Chevrolet model in the Camaro to take to the track and two new full-time drivers (Byron and Bowman) to break into the fold. With all that, the organization still got three of its four cars into the playoffs and William Byron took home Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. Still though, much more is expected from this organization, especially when NMPA Most Popular Driver winner Chase Elliott was the only driver to reach Victory Lane for the four-car stable. The company is coming off its lowest win total as an organization since Jeff Gordon’s rookie season of 1993 when the then-three-car outfit won one race.
The crew chief shakeups for Johnson and Byron should provide some added juice. The seven-time champion gets a fresh start coming off his only winless full season of his career, while the second-year man Byron gets a steady, championship hand to guide his path in the iconic No. 24. In his second full year in the No. 88, Alex Bowman should build off a solid 2018 campaign that saw him reach the second round of the playoffs. Elliott is a certified title contender, who really hit his stride after reaching Victory Lane for the first time at Watkins Glen.
“For us as a company, I’m going to use a phrase that Mr. Hendrick pointed to at the start of the year. ‘Whatever it takes’ is our mentality going into the year,” Jeff Andrews, Hendrick’s vice president of competition told NASCAR.com. “We have got to get a car to Homestead at the end of the season, 2019, and anything short of that would be a disappointment for us as a company.”
Chase Elliott, No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet: After two-and-a-half seasons of near-misses in reaching Victory Lane, Elliott got there in 2018. “I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personal he was taking not winning races,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said. “And once he won, I realized, wow, it was something he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.” After nabbing the win at Watkins Glen, Elliott didn’t stop – adding playoff victories at Dover and Kansas in the Round of 12. The 23-year-old capped off his year with his first NMPA Most Popular Driver Award – inheriting the mantle from 15-time winner and former teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Entering 2019, Elliott is looking to build off his strong second half with Gustafson and continue his rise to title contention in the Monster Energy Series. The two enter their fourth year together – the longest current tenure among the Hendrick pairings.
“It’s nice to have won a couple races,” Elliott said. “I’m not sure how much of that you can really ride into the next year. It’s kind of a fresh start in a lot of ways. … But we’ll try our best and try to get rolling.”
William Byron, No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet: Byron made quick splashes in one-year stints in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series (seven wins) in 2016 and the NASCAR Xfinity Series (four wins and a championship) in 2017. His maiden Monster Energy Series voyage saw the young driver struggle a bit with just four top 10s and 13 lead-lap finishes. While he did not qualify for the postseason, he did take home the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award for the third straight year in a national series. The expectations have been ratcheted up with the move to put Chad Knaus, a seven-time championship-winning crew chief, atop the pit box for the 21-year-old.
“This year working with Chad is going to be exciting,” Byron said. “I feel like we’ve started that process already, just doing things together as a team. I feel like it is growing, and I feel like by the time we get to Daytona, we should be up and rolling.”
Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Ally Chevrolet: The 2018 season was a trying one for Johnson as he posted a career-low in top fives (two), top 10s (11), laps led (40) and final standings position (14th). He also went winless for the first time to date in his 17-season, full-time career and brings a 59-race winless drought – the longest of his career – into 2019. All that added up to some changes for the seven-time champion. Most notable among them is a new crew chief, Kevin Meendering. There is also a change for Johnson on the sponsor side with longtime sponsor Lowe’s departing the racing side, while Ally slides in on a two-year deal to sponsor the team. Despite last year’s down season, the fire still burns strong for the elder statesman of the Hendrick stable.
“It’s honestly never been higher,” Johnson said of his fire to win a record eighth championship. “The past is great and I’ve won seven championships and 83 races, but that’s then and this is now and I’m still as hungry and focused and dedicated as ever. And, having a year like I did last year also ramps-up the intensity some, so I’m just ready to get going.” Johnson also indicated in the preseason that his role with the team is “changing and increasing and being more of a leader for the team.”
Alex Bowman, No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet: In his first full season behind the wheel of the ride previously driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Hendrick, Bowman qualified for the playoffs and reached the Round of 12. Bowman came out of the gate strong winning the pole position for the 2018 Daytona 500. The 25-year-old Arizona native notched his first top fives in the sport’s top series (three in 2018) and set career bests for top 10s (11), standings finish (16th) and average finish (17.0). That season – his first full time run since 2015 — set up some solid ground work for Bowman, crew chief Greg Ives and the No. 88 team to build off in 2019.
“I felt like last year, from a Hendrick Motorsports standpoint, you always looked at Alex like, ‘Oh that 88’s doing well,’ kind of leading that charge, that banner,” Ives told NASCAR.com. “I know Chase came up and was able to get those three wins. That’s what I am kind of looking at Alex to make that next step. Grow with the other drivers whether its Chase, William or Jimmie. Grow into a healthy competition with them to be able to lean and rely on them to not only make himself better but make our cars better.”
• Jan. 22: Assorted teams
• Jan. 23: Richard Petty Motorsports
• Jan. 24: Germain Racing
• Jan. 25: Leavine Family Racing
• Jan 28: Front Row Motorsports
• Jan. 29: JTG Daugherty Racing
• Jan. 30: Wood Brothers Racing
• Jan. 31: Roush Fenway Racing
• Feb. 1: Richard Childress Racing
• Feb. 4: Chip Ganasssi Racing
• Feb. 5: Hendrick Motorsports
• Feb. 6: Joe Gibbs Racing
• Feb. 7: Stewart-Haas Racing
• Feb. 8: Team Penske
Author: RJ Kraft