DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick already knew how excited he was about his driver lineup for 2018. But it didn’t take long for that excitement to jump up another notch once cars hit the track.
“This has been so much fun for me,” Hendrick smiled. “To see the excitement with the team, the way they're working together, it's just a lot of fun.”
Last Sunday at Daytona International Speedway, all four Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1s qualified inside of the top 10 – and Alex Bowman captured the Daytona 500 pole position.
“To come down here, it's a statement by the whole organization to run four cars and get them that close,” the owner said. “To see them all run well has been a good start.”
Thursday evening, Chase Elliott followed up that effort by winning a Duel at Daytona to move into a tie atop the NASCAR Cup Series standings and set himself up with a fourth-place starting position for the Daytona 500.
But it’s not even the success on the track that has impressed Hendrick the most – it’s how quickly the young drivers are picking up the ins and outs of what it takes to be successful.
For 20-year-old newcomer William Byron, a trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for testing would be the very first time he ran laps in a Cup Series car.
“I talked to William before he went to test Vegas, ‘Hey, don't go out and wreck the car, just get laps, be careful,’” Hendrick recalled. “At lunchtime they called me and said, ‘Well, he's the fastest.’ They're quick learners.”
The same could be said for another young driver joining the Hendrick Motorsports stable in 2018 – Bowman.
“Alex, the first time he got in the No. 88 car was New Hampshire, and he was going for the front there with about 10 laps to go,” Hendrick said. “I mean, he hadn't been in a car, hadn't worked with (No. 88 team crew chief) Greg (Ives). Fearless, talented, car control. They're great young guys that want to learn, and they're all over in the shop with the guys, having fun. It's really, really exciting.”
As for the third young driver, Hendrick said that Elliott has “done everything I thought he would do and better” since moving up to the Cup level full-time in 2016. And after back-to-back playoff seasons, Elliott’s 2018 campaign is off to a hot start with the Duel win.
“I'm blown away with what a quick study these young ones are and all the things they do,” Hendrick said. “It’s so much fun to see.”
This Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports will become the first organization in NASCAR history to start three drivers under the age of 25 in the Daytona 500: Bowman (24), Elliott (22) and Byron (20).
But the trio also has a seven-time Cup Series champion as a teammate – a fact that has not been lost on any of the drivers. And Hendrick has made a point to remind them what an asset it is to work with a driver of Johnson’s caliber.
“He is the leader,” the owner said. “He’s the guy these young drivers need to look to, because he will out-work and out-think and break the racetrack down and pump his team up and do everything he’s supposed to do to be a champion. They can follow him, and he’s going to lead them.”
As the 2018 season gets underway, Hendrick said he expects there to be some growing pains, but he’s already thrilled with what he’s seen from his young competitors.
“I think when you've got these guys that have so much raw talent, yeah, they're going to make mistakes on pit road, they're going to make mistakes on restarts sometimes, but so do the guys that have been doing it every week,” he said. “But how good can they be? That's the part that I get excited about. If they're that good at this age, what can they be? And so, we should be competitive for a long time.”