Dayton Daily News

Hendrick vows rebound from worst-ever season

Owner looks for stability after a season of change.

- By Jenna Fryer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Rick Hendrick worked too hard building NASCAR’s top organizati­on to tolerate mediocrity. If his teams had simply been average last season he might not rate it as one of the worst in team history.

The Hendrick cars were pretty bad — seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson failed to win for the first time in his Cup career — and it took 22 races for the organizati­on to get its first victory. The final tally showed just three Chase Elliott victories and the organizati­on with 12 Cup titles was locked out of the championsh­ip-deciding finale for the second consecutiv­e year.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Hendrick guaranteed this year will be much improved.

“Last year sucked. I ain’t gonna do that no more,” Hendrick said. “I’m too competitiv­e to do that and our organizati­on is too good to be doing that.”

The season was not entirely surprising considerin­g the upheaval to both the driver lineup and the behind-the-scenes operations. The roster was stacked just three years ago with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Johnson but looks dramatical­ly different as Hendrick begins its 36th season in the Cup Series.

Gordon retired after the 2015 season, Earnhardt was sidelined most of 2016 because of concussion-related ailments and he retired the next year. Kahne was released for underperfo­rming and Hendrick suddenly had two high-profile rides to fill. Elliott had already replaced Gordon, and the newest vacancies were filled by William Byron, a rookie last season, and Alex Bowman, who had bounced around looking for a competitiv­e ride until he filled in for Earnhardt in 2016.

Bowman is 26, Elliott is 23 and Byron celebrated his 21st birthday during the offseason. Johnson is entering his 18th full-time Cup season and turns 44 this September.

Johnson was surrounded by inexperien­ced newcomers at the same time Chevrolet made a body change to its Cup entrant and switched to the Camaro. Although Bowman won the Daytona 500 pole in the Camaro’s debut, and Chevy driver Austin Dillon won the race, that was the lone highlight for most of the season. Chevy didn’t win again until Elliott’s first career victory in August and Camaro drivers totaled just four victories. Ford won 19 races in its outgoing Fusion and Toyota scored 13 wins in its Camry.

Hendrick completed a massive restructur­ing before the 2018 season and its resources were stretched thin as all four teams were moved into one shop for the first time. The teams had previously been split in pairs, and the consolidat­ion put everyone in the same building with the crew chiefs working as a quartet.

So much change had an impact on performanc­e.

“We really looked like we were out to lunch most of the year,” Hendrick said. “Until Chase won, it didn’t even look like we were in the same ballpark. But we started to close the big gap toward the end of the year and now we’ve turned the page.”

Hendrick had built his team from nothing and weathered the tightest of financial situations. AllStar Racing barely made it through the first two months of its inaugural 1984 season.

“Last year fires me up and is a reminder ‘This is not who we are and how we run and we need to get after it right now.’ ”

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