Monday, April 01, 2019

COMMENTARY: Texas Provides Much-Needed Lift For Hendrick Motorports

Johnson won the pole on Friday...

Hendrick Motorsports silenced the critics last weekend – at least temporarily -- placing two cars in the Top-6 in Sunday’s O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson finished fifth Sunday, with teammate William Byron close behind in sixth, with Chase Elliott 13th and Alex Bowman 18th.

HMS also qualified three of its Chevrolet Camaros in the Top-5 – the team’s best performance since sweeping the front rows in qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500 – on a weekend that seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson called “a step in the right direction.”

Just one week after a demoralizing 24th-place finish at Martinsville Speedway, Johnson led the Hendrick charge in the Lone Star State. He and his Kevin Meendering-led team were fastest in Friday’s lone practice session, then topped the speed charts in all three rounds of qualifying en route to Johnson’s first pole since July 17, 2016 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Teammate William Byron qualified second, with Elliott third and Bowman 24th.

Johnson led 60 laps Sunday – more than he led in the entire 2018 season – while Elliott and Byron paced the field for 35 and 15 laps, respectively. That’s encouraging for an organization that finished ninth, 11th, 16th and 19th (leading just 21 laps) in the circuit’s last 1.5-mile outing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, just three weeks earlier.

...and finished fifth Sunday in Texas.
“I am so proud of everybody on this Ally team,” said Johnson after the race. “We’ve had a lot of pressure on us, and everyone has stepped up and gotten it done.

“We were very aggressive coming here, changing a lot of stuff around in our mile-and-a-half program. I'm really proud of everybody for keeping the faith and working hard. I was just trying to get a consistent weekend. It is one thing to have one-lap pace. We needed that and we did that on Friday. Then Saturday went really well. So in the back of my mind, I was thinking, `We just need to have a rock-solid day. If we do that, then I could confirm to myself and to everyone else that we are moving in the right direction.’”

Sunday was not without its challenges for the HMS fleet.  Byron overcame a pit-road miscue en route to his sixth-place, while Elliott looked like a contender early before experiencing challenges of his own in the later going.

But in the end, Sunday provided a high-water mark for an organization that was badly in need of some good news.

All parties acknowledge that there is still plenty of work to do before HMS returns to its customary position at the top of the MENCS standings. Johnson has not been to Victory Lane since the AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover on June 4, 2017; a span of 65 races. Elliott still lacks the consistency to challenge for checkered flags on a weekly basis, while Byron and Bowman continue to learn the race craft necessary to become frontrunners at NASCAR’s highest level.

But for now, all four drivers have a week to revel in their “consistent weekend,” while the men and women back at the shop attempt to build on it for the future.

“We needed this,” said a beaming Byron post-race. “It’s been a long road for sure, the last year and a half. We’ve been working harder and harder and the guys have been putting in a lot of work. (There is) still work to be done, but we’re definitely heading it there in the right direction.”

“Absolutely,” agreed Johnson. “This is what we’ve been looking for.”

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