- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
In 2009, Hendrick Motorsports brought on NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin to join NASCAR Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earhardt Jr., and presumptive NASCAR Hall of Famer Jimmie Johnson as the team's fourth driver. A resurgent season by Martin would lead the team to 13 wins and a 1-2-3 finish in the season standings, led by Johnson, winner of his fourth of five consecutive series titles.
In the past four years, Hendrick Motorsports has won just thirteen races total. Superstars Martin, Earnhardt, and Gordon are long since retired, and Johnson announced earlier this year that he would follow them into retirement after the 2020 season. Gordon and Earnhardt's legacies are carried on in cars that retain their famous numbers, 24 and 88, but their cars have won just two races since their retirements. Young replacements Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, and William Byron seemed to be long-term solutions when they were signed, but the three have just nine wins to their name. Seven of those belong to Elliott, two to Bowman. Byron has not won a race through two and a half seasons in Hendrick Motorsports equipment.
The greatest team in the history of stock car racing is a shadow of its former self, and, in 2020, it will for the third time in the last half-decade be asked to fill an iconic car with a driver that could potentially drive it for the next fifteen years. Hendrick Motorsports leadership, including team owner Rick Hendrick and likely future owner Jeff Gordon, have their third shot at restoring their team to glory. But is a star available? Can the team that found Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kyle Busch as rookies afford to take another shot on a young driver when most of their team is young drivers that have failed to live up to lofty expectations? Is a superstar, like Earnhardt, or an undervalued veteran leaving a worsening situation, like Martin, even available?
One thing that should be clear to team leadership is that no signing to the 48 could possibly live up to what Johnson, arguably NASCAR's best ever, has given the team. The seven-time champion came up in the prime of Jeff Gordon's career, and time as the face of NASCAR; he had no trouble at all not only escaping Gordon's shadow but surpassing it. No prospect at any level of NASCAR racing seems anywhere near ready to take the reins from today's best, the Kyle Busches and Kevin Harvicks of the world, within two seasons. The only driver at any level of NASCAR racing who has shown even close to that level of potential, Christopher Bell, is already committed to join the top team of today, Joe Gibbs Racing, next season.
Hendrick's recent experiments with young drivers have been relatively unsuccessful. Chase Elliott showed a significant flash of talent in what is now known as the Xfinity Series, but he struggled for two and a half seasons at the Cup level before winning his first race, and has never won more than three in any season. Elliott looks primed to be one of the better young drivers in the series, but he is still not at the level of a weekly contender expected from a lead driver at Hendrick Motorsports. William Byron came to the team after winning the 2017 Xfinity Series title as a rookie, and has not only failed to win a race at the Cup level but has actually regressed from the middling success in his 2019 campaign that led him to eleventh in the series standings. This season, he has led just 72 laps, and has yet to finish a race in the top five.
Bowman represents a more unusual path, winding through a variety of bottom-tier teams at all levels of NASCAR competition before making a name for himself while serving as a fill-in driver for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. He is still a relatively young and inexperienced driver himself, but he was never really considered a "prospect," a tag more closely associated with young drivers running for wins and championships at lower levels, at any level of NASCAR competition. Bowman has been a full-time driver with HMS since 2018, and his two race wins represent the path of a good driver that will win you the races he is in a position to win. This is certainly good enough to justify Bowman's place in NASCAR, but not the makings of a top-level driver at a top-level team.
All of this leaves Hendrick with few options for Johnson's succession. While his #48 is fully sponsored in a long-term deal with Ally that will outlast his participation with the team, Johnson's winless streak dating back to 2017 undoubtedly casts questions on the quality of the prestigious car that Hendrick will have the opportunity to fill. Brad Keselowski, a former Hendrick Motorsports driver and one time rumored successor to Johnson, extended his deal with Penske Racing last week, but, outside of prestige and loyalty, why would he consider leaving an ultra-successful Penske team for a Hendrick Motorsports team that has struggled to keep pace with elite competition over the last half-decade? The same question can be asked about any more complicated deals that could bring stars under contract with other teams or currently in retirement to HMS, while the struggles of most drivers transitioning to NASCAR from other series raise serious questions about the value of poaching a superstar from another discipline of auto racing for the sole purpose of grabbing a headline.
That leaves HMS with only the two options it has already used to fill the team, either bringing up a rookie from the lower levels of stock car racing or finding a young, undervalued veteran currently being undervalued elsewhere. The first list of candidates is startlingly short, with Ford's Chase Briscoe serving as the only truly interesting prospect at NASCAR's lower levels not already part of another specific team's prospect pipeline. Hendrick also has the race-winning Noah Gragson under contract at their Xfinity Series affiliate JR Motorsports this season. Gragson, however, is in that ride because he brings his own funding, and has created more headlines for his questionable on-track conduct than he has created for the two races he has won over three seasons. Briscoe sits second in the Xfinity Series standings as of this weekend, while Gragson is running in fourth. Two other rookie-level drivers, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley, run in the series without their own realistic path to the Cup Series, but neither has built a large enough resume to justify a quick move to the next level.
The second list, more experienced drivers not currently racing at the top level of NASCAR, is much larger. It should be noted that both Stewart-Haas Racing free agent Clint Bowyer and former Chip Ganassi Racing lead driver Kyle Larson are on this list, but Bowyer has taken just two wins in his three-and-a-half years at top-flight SHR, while Larson is out of a ride for a reason and seems to be the most unlikely signing on this entire list.
Headlining this list is the driver many seem to see as the most likely choice for the car, Joe Gibbs Racing's Erik Jones. He announced his departure from JGR earlier this week, as part of the announcement of Bell's promotion to that team, leaving the two-time race winner free to sign anywhere. The argument for Jones is the same argument for Joey Logano, who was let go by JGR at a young age to make way for veterans Matt Kenseth and, eventually, Carl Edwards, only to later succeed at a much higher level at Penske Racing. His camp would tell you that, like Logano, he is still a young, promising driver on the rise who already has race wins to his name in a series where wins can be very hard to come by for young drivers. Logano, however, joined a Penske Racing team that was already secure in its future, thanks to Brad Keselowski, and had a long-term opening in their well-funded second car after successive years of off-track issues led them to release both Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger from the ride. Jones will be entering a very different situation, expected to immediately be the second best of a four-car team whose leader is himself a similarly young driver that has similarly struggled to establish himself as more than just promising through nearly five seasons of competition.
Jones is a relatively safe bet, a driver who should win the races that he's capable of winning, and his 29 top five finishes in under four seasons of competition prove that he can finish well in top-level equipment even when he doesn't have a car capable of winning on that given day, a notable struggle of both Bowman and Byron. But he has also struggled to succeed in the playoff format that NASCAR uses to crown a champion. He made the field in both his second and third years, but could finish no better than 15th of 16 in either year, never coming close to looking like a serious contender.
The Hendrick Motorsports car Jones would be running is also currently seen as a downgrade from his current JGR equipment. His teammates are currently 3rd, 7th, and 10th in the season standings, with six wins to their names; Hendrick Motorsports has just one car currently in the top ten, and only two wins this season. This means that any year-on-year improvement may actually look about the same as his current championship position in that car, fifteenth.
Outside of Jones, the options remaining to HMS are stranger and more sparse. Impressive Richard Childress Racing rookie Tyler Reddick has indicated earlier this week that he plans to stay at RCR for the near future, but Daniel Hemric, the young RCR driver he replaced, is currently serving in Alex Bowman's former role at JR Motorsports, filling races in their car shared by many drivers throughout the season. Hemric was a rookie just last year, but his weak performance relative to Reddick at RCR, relatively unimpressive runs with the team in the Xfinity series, and complete lack of wins at any level of NASCAR competition make him an unlikely fit at Hendrick Motorsports.
Ross Chastain, the young driver who has parlayed funding from his family's watermelon farming business into a full season of racing at Kaulig after a deal with Chip Ganassi Racing fell through due to some very specific and very strange sponsorship issues last season, has NASCAR wins. However, he has been roundly outperformed by both Briscoe and Penske Racing's Austin Cindric in the Xfinity Series this season, and struggled to make an impact in his fill-in Cup races at Roush-Fenway Racing earlier this season. Chastain would make for a relatively interesting story, but would require Hendrick Motorsports to again commit at least one full season of one of its cars to the chance of an unproven driver being able to jumping multiple levels and develop in the car rather than at a level below it.
All of this leads to the most interesting proposal, the hiring of the only available driver in all of NASCAR that would generate any significant buzz outside of auto racing circles. Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., the man leading NASCAR's Black Lives Matter initiatives from a driver level and the only Black driver in NASCAR's top level of competition, is a free agent at the end of the season. Wallace did not do too much in a fairly weak single-car Richard Petty Motorsports entry in his first two seasons, but has been an on-and-off revelation this year, disappearing in some races and finding himself in the conversation at the end of the day in others. Just yesterday, he fought Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick on a late-race restart en route to grabbing yet another top ten finish for the small, storied team.
Bubba Wallace is currently tied for 19th in the championship standings, an impressive performance for a car that is notoriously underfunded. He has already drawn interest for openings at both Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, but his popularity and recent successes are drawing sponsorship money to Richard Petty Motorsports that could help the team and Wallace build into contenders together. He mentioned a deal that could "send [them] over the top" after yesterday's race, however, indicating that a plan could already be in place for him to stay at an RPM team hoping to improve their performance next season.
The national popularity Wallace brings would be a massive boon to the ability for Hendrick Motorsports to build more of the sort of intricate business-to-business deals that fund most of the sponsorship seen on the sides of their cars. His performance lags well behind what Jones is currently outputting at Joe Gibbs Racing, but is far more than could reasonably be expected for an RPM team that often finds itself with no sponsor at all. Were he not a likely candidate to extend with RPM, he would be a logical contender for the car.
Beyond these drivers, Hendrick Motorsports would also likely be able to sign former Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez, current Chip Ganassi Racing stand-in driver Matt Kenseth, and JTG Daugherty's Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece. While all of these drivers bring something on the track, none of them have performed particularly well this season. Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, former Joe Gibbs Racing superstar Carl Edwards has not been rumored to be returning to the sport any time soon, and seems content to remain in retirement.
In short, Hendrick has no perfect option to replace Johnson, and will almost certainly not be able to sign anyone that would immediately vault his team back into championship contention. Any of these drivers could be called to the 48 next season and any of them could succeed there, but Hendrick has other options. One speculated option sees current #88 driver Alex Bowman sliding over to the #48 entry and the Ally sponsorship deal already in place, closing the #88 team and contracting HMS back to just three cars. That car has no significant funding at the moment, and the sponsored races assigned to it could likely be folded into existing space on the #24 and #9 entries. While this would be the least exciting move of all, it would grant Rick Hendrick the opportunity to focus on what is already in place, emphasizing the potential of current talent with three shots at a championship every season rather than stretching resources then to take four worse shots every season.
Johnson has fifteen races left in the #48. If need be, Hendrick Motorsports has until the Daytona 500 to make their decision.