Despite costly crashes for team, Rick Hendrick says Atlanta damage was worth the show

CONCORD, N.C. – His team “killed” four cars Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but Rick Hendrick said the seven-figure budget sacrifice was worth the trade-off of an epic race and rave reviews.

“I guess if the fans enjoy it, and it makes more people watch our sport, then we need to do that,” Hendrick said Monday during a celebratory luncheon at Hendrick Motorsports for William Byron’s Daytona 500 victory. “And it was plenty of action. I never dreamed the cars could run four-wide there and not wreck. Well, there were a lot of wrecks.”

In addition to producing a thrilling three-wide finish that was the third closest in Cup history (Daniel Suarez won by 0.003 seconds over Ryan Blaney) and a track-record 48 lead changes, the 1.54-mile oval also delivered the destructive downside of superspeedway racing.

Of the 37 cars that started the race, 27 were listed in crashes Sunday – including all four Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets. Chase Elliott managed a team-best 17th despite being caught in three crashes, and the damage was worse for Byron (17th), Alex Bowman (27th) and Kyle Larson (a DNF in 32nd).

It was an unusually poor showing for Hendrick, which actually has excelled at Atlanta since its “reprofiling” that was engineered for packs of high-speed mayhem. The team has won three of five (sweeping 2022 with Byron and Elliott and winning again last July with Byron) at the “new” Atlanta.

But as Hendrick joked a few times Monday, the team apparently used up its luck in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway (finishing 1-2 with Byron and Bowman with all four Hendrick Motorsports Camaros in the top 15).

“(Atlanta) was like going to Daytona, but the crowd was excited,” Hendrick said. “For the fans, it was a show, and a lot of talent was shown, and the cars were pretty equal.

“You know, I hate it's the first race in the playoff. As William said, he's going to sleep that night. But that’s going to be exciting. It's just a great race for the fans, and I think it'll be full when we go back.”

The Sept. 8 race at Atlanta will mark the track’s debut as the NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener (which usually is Darlington Raceway, but the Southern 500 will close the regular season).

If that race is hailed as another instant classic, the calls will be renewed to try the reprofiling at other tracks (though the Next Gen has excelled at many 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas Speedway).

“God, I hope not,” Byron said when asked if Atlanta could be a template for overhauling Texas Motor Speedway’s maligned 1.5-mile surface. “You take something that’s good in the sport, and you oversaturate it. I feel like we’ve been down that path. We can’t oversaturate something that is a niche, unique thing that looks really great.

“I just think it’s in our best interest to have unique challenges each week. Atlanta is a great challenge. I enjoy going there. But I don’t want that every week. And I think that it would be bad for the talent of the sport and really to see who’s truly the best yearlong champion. That wouldn’t be a good thing to have multiple of those races in the playoffs.”

Despite its Atlanta wipeout, Hendrick drivers are positioned fairly well in the points standings. Byron (second and locked in by virtue of his victory), Chase Elliott (sixth with a stage win at Daytona), Alex Bowman (ninth) and Kyle Larson (11th) are in the playoff provisional grid through two races with the series heading Sunday to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick vice chairman Jeff Gordon credited strong communication and strategy to accumulate stage points.

“We're still in a decent spot from a points standpoint even though Atlanta didn't go well,” Gordon said. “There's some that are in a pretty big hole right now. So pretty happy with the way Daytona went all the way around.”

Dustin Long contributed to this report