CONCORD, N.C. – When the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs get underway this weekend, Hendrick Motorsports will be in pursuit of its series-best 15th championship.
William Byron enters the postseason as the top seed with 2,036 points, boosted by a career-high and series-leading five wins. The 25-year-old driver has victories this year at three of the six playoff tracks that the sport will be visiting for a second time this season – Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway and Darlington Raceway. Add in victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Watkins Glen International and the Charlotte, North Carolina, native has an extremely diverse portfolio of triumphs on his 2023 ledger.
PLAYOFF ANALYSIS: William Byron and the No, 24 team | How the playoffs work
NASCAR is a team sport and the roster of folks on the No. 24 RaptorTough.com team have been on top of their game all season long. That is best illustrated by the pit crew, which has the fastest average four-tire pit stop this season through 26 races (11.127 seconds). Team president and general manager Jeff Andrews has had a front-row seat to Byron’s rise in the sport’s top series and the team’s development under crew chief Rudy Fugle.
"Rudy has done a great job. He has built a tremendous team under him," Andrews said. "They have a lot of depth and that group is very hungry. I don’t think there is a driver in the garage who is working harder than William Byron is right now. His work ethic is incredible. He works hard at it every single day and it’s been amazing to watch his growth in the sport. He is now a legitimate force in the sport. One thing that we have seen is he is being aggressive at the right time and he wants it bad.
"That race team – Brandon (McSwain, primary race engineer) and Tyler (Jones, car chief) are both amazing at what they do. The 24 pit crew is the best on pit road right now. They will be showing up with their game faces on and are an amazing group of athletes. I'm proud of them and all our pit crews."
RELATED: Playoff schedule sets up well for Byron and Larson
Kyle Larson enters the playoffs sixth in the standings with 2,017 points. The team showed plenty of speed early in the season and picked off two short-track wins at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway in April. The driver of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 also won the All-Star Race at North Wilkesboro Speedway. In the latter half of the regular season, he notched seven of his 12 top-10 finishes – consistency that will be needed to navigate the elimination format of the NASCAR playoffs. Led by crew chief Cliff Daniels, this group can also lean on its 2021 championship experience.
"Cliff has grown into an amazing leader," Andrews said. "It's been great to watch him build a team and they are champions. They know what this feels like. There’s a lot of passion and intensity on their team. They have their game face on seven days a week and I love to see that from them. Cliff brings that to that team. Good leaders earn respect. They can’t demand it and Cliff has earned that with his team and with Kyle. All of them are so very detailed and hungry.
"What needs to be said about Kyle Larson? When it's time to go, there is no other guy we want behind the wheel than Kyle and the talent that he brings to the seat. He’s probably the most versatile driver of our time and one of the most talented. That team gets it done when it's on the line. They are going to be right in the middle of the fight in Phoenix."
PLAYOFF ANALYSIS: Kyle Larson and the No. 5 team
While Chase Elliott did not reach the driver playoffs, the No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts team did qualify for the owner championship. That competition works in the same manner as the driver championship, with four eliminations taking place at the end of each of the three-race rounds. In the regular season, Elliott missed seven races and Josh Berry (five races), Jordan Taylor (one race) and Corey LaJoie (one race) filled in for him. Their work as well as that of Elliott’s – seven top-five finishes and 10 top-10s in 19 starts – put the group in position to compete for the owner crown. Being in the mix for the owner championship is a major source of pride for the Rick Hendrick-owned squad.
"It is very important to Hendrick Motorsports to have the 9 team, the 5 and the 24 team in the middle of the owner championship," Andrews said. "It’s a tremendous credit to Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and his leadership for keeping that race team focused during that time of adversity. It is really what made the difference in getting them into the owner championship.
"Let’s also give Chase a lot of credit for coming back with a focus. When you are out that many weeks and then come back, it is not as easy as flipping a switch and expecting everything to pick up right where you left off. It takes time to get that cadence and chemistry back between the driver and the team."
Alex Bowman started the season strong with three top-five finishes and six top-10s in the opening seven races. A fractured vertebra sidelined the 30-year-old driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevy for four weeks and the team struggled to recapture its early-season groove. Despite missing the playoffs for the first time in his six seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, the closing 10-race stretch is an opportunity for him and first-year crew chief Blake Harris to begin preparing for the 2024 season. They can also play spoiler during the playoff races – all three Round of 16 races last year were won by non-playoff drivers.
"Of course, both teams (the Nos. 9 and 48) would have preferred to be in the driver playoffs and competing for a championship,” Andrews said. "Their focus now changes to the 10 races remaining and it’s time to start thinking about building momentum towards 2024. Alex and the No. 48 team also have the opportunity to go out and be players for us in terms of taking stage points and wins away from other playoff cars that will ultimately end up helping the 5, the 24 and the 9 in the owner championship."
RELATED: Bowman focused on finishing the season strong
In addition to the playoffs, Hendrick Motorsports has several notable milestones on the horizon. The engine shop is one win away from 500 national series wins. The Cup Series program is only two wins from 300. Just two years ago, Hendrick Motorsports passed Petty Enterprises as the all-time wins leader in the sport’s top series at 269. In each of the last three playoffs, the team has won at least two races.
"We have our eye on 300 (Cup Series wins) for Mr. and Mrs. Hendrick," Andrews said. "They deserve that milestone for everything that they have been through in building this company. The entire company wants this very badly for them. We will get it. We’d love to do that at Phoenix (Raceway) and culminate that with a championship but we can’t wait that long. We’ve got to go start winning races and that has to start this weekend at Darlington (Raceway).
"All of the people that we are getting ready to go to battle with – (vice president of competition) Chad Knaus, (director of powertrain) Scott Maxim, (technical director) Brian Campe, our crew chiefs and our pit coaches – this is the best group of people we have ever had in this company from top to bottom. Mr. Hendrick and (vice chairman) Jeff Gordon give us all the tools and resources that we need. It’s our time to go make them proud. 500 engine wins, 300 Cup Series wins and we want to certainly top that off with a championship at Phoenix."