CONCORD, N.C. – The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs start this weekend at Darlington Raceway and Hendrick Motorsports will have its entire four-car fleet competing for a 15th championship.
Chase Elliott won four times and earned the regular season title. Kyle Larson and William Byron each earned two victories while Alex Bowman also picked up a win. The drivers had all won within the first 11 races of the season to essentially punch their postseason tickets.
The 10-race playoffs will see four drivers eliminated at the end of each of the three rounds, which consist of three races apiece. In the past two seasons, a Hendrick Motorsports driver has successfully navigated the elimination format to come away with the title. Elliott did it in 2020 and Larson followed that up in 2021 to give the organization its 14th Cup Series championship.
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Team president and general manager Jeff Andrews told HendrickMotorsports.com that as the rounds ramp up, so too does the need to produce. Through the years, Hendrick Motorsports has done just that with a series-best 53 wins in the playoffs.
"As we know with the playoffs and that environment, you have to win," Andrews said. "The further you get into the playoffs it will be very critical to have teams, race cars, engines and a mindset of sometime in those last couple of rounds, you have to win to advance yourself on to the remaining rounds.
"The key is, easier said than done, we have to go out and execute. We have to do our thing that we do at the race track and be mistake free. Have good races at the start (and) establish a good footing moving on into the next rounds. As we get late in the rounds, it gets time to really go out and perform in the races. Of course, we want to be fortunate enough to get to Phoenix (Raceway) and have hopefully at least one of those four cars in that final race. You have to go out and win that race to win the championship."
Since the 2014 move to the highest finishing driver format for the Championship 4 race, a title-eligible team has won each season – effectively making it a winner-take-all challenge.
Hendrick Motorsports’ championship linage begins with Jeff Gordon. The NASCAR Hall of Famer’s first Cup Series title in 1995 was also team owner Rick Hendrick’s first. Gordon would go on to win three more in his career.
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Now vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon has an up-close view of the entire stable. He’s curious how the teams will take what they’ve learned from their first runs at tracks with the Next Gen Camaro. Six of the 10 remaining venues will be host their second race of the season during the playoffs: Darlington, Kansas Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix.
"This season has been very unpredictable because of all the changes – the new car and trying to learn and understand it," Gordon told HendrickMotorsports.com. "Right now, we are starting to go to tracks for the second time and see and apply what we learned earlier. When it comes to that, I have a tremendous amount of faith in our group that they learn faster and apply themselves, in that sense, better than anybody out there.
"Our pit crews are the same way, just learning about the single lug nut stops. I think we’ve seen how important what happens on pit road has become compared to previous years. I feel like we’ve got the best group there. I think we’ve got the best people to go out there and get the job done. I have a lot of faith that we’re going to have a strong playoffs."
Ahead of the start of the playoffs, Gordon shared his outlook on each of the four Hendrick Motorsports teams.
Elliott and the No. 9 team are at the top of several statistics this season: Wins (four), laps led (719), average finish (10.5), top fives (10), top 10s (17) and he had at least a share of the point standings lead for all but four weeks. Gordon has seen a driver in championship form since the outset of the season.
"I’ve seen his confidence build since then with the consistency, the wins and the way he and his team are operating," Gordon said of Elliott. "Same with Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and – the whole team. They are really, to me, the best team out there, and they have been proving it week in and week out. I’m really excited to see how they do in the playoffs."
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While the 2022 season hasn't produced as many wins as the 2021 season did for Larson, the NASCAR Hall of Famer sees a team primed for a big playoff run.
"I know what they are capable of doing when they do get on that roll," Gordon said of the No. 5 team. "They’ve been so close. They’ve led a bunch of laps and been really strong as well. They know how to step up when the pressure is on and in the playoffs that is exactly what you have. I see them going deep."
The second half of the regular season did not go the way the Byron and the No. 24 team would have liked. However, Gordon sees even more room for growth in the playoffs for the 24-year-old.
"If they can take all that they’ve learned and now start to put it all together, I think they can have an incredible playoffs," Gordon said. "I just see that attitude and the relationship between Rudy (Fugle, crew chief) and William as being one that people are going to have to deal with a lot in the playoffs."
Although the No. 48 team has gone through a rough patch as of late, Gordon believes Bowman and company are capable of being a spoiler in the playoffs.
"I’m really anxious to see how they find a way to dig deep and come together to navigate their way through the playoffs and surprise people," Gordon said. "I think that’s what Alex likes to do. I think he likes to be unpredictable and surprise people. I’m anxious to see how that goes for them in the playoffs."
The specter of elimination races can lead to desperation among the field, which take place at two short tracks (Bristol Motor Speedway in the Round of 16 and Martinsville in the Round of 8) and a road course (the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in the Round of 12). The middle of the playoffs also feature a potential game changer that could leave someone’s playoff fate hanging in the balance.
"Having Talladega in the middle of the Round of 12 is just a wild card for everybody," Andrews noted. "You hope to be in good enough shape there where you are not relying on that race to make or break your playoffs for you."
Gordon expects with how close the standings are from the start that the intensity will be even higher from the jump. Elliott is the only driver that will enter the playoffs with more than 30 playoff points. The driver of the No. 9 will have at the start of each round.
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"We’ve seen in the past where people have been able to dominate and get a big advantage and sort of float their way through the first couple rounds," Gordon said. "We don’t have that. If you look at the playoff points and how close it is, every lap and every detail that they put into the cars going into each race from practice to qualifying to the checkered flag, you can’t make mistakes.
"The thing that I’m going to certainly be pushing on our teams – is just try to be mistake-free because there is going to be a lot of people I believe who won’t be able to handle the pressure. Our guys have been in this position so many times that it really helps when you go into a situation that is high stress and is high pressure. You know you have experience with how to deal with it mentally and physically."
The 10-race playoffs kick off on Sunday, Sept. 4, at Darlington with coverage at 6 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN Radio and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.