CONCORD, N.C. – In a year featuring a NASCAR Cup Series-leading nine points-paying wins to date, along with the milestones of 300 Cup Series wins for the team and 500 national series wins for the engine shop reached, there have been multiple highlights for Hendrick Motorsports.
The team has also faced its share of challenges, having to overcome injuries to Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. Both drivers each missed time due to injury and came up just short of reaching the postseason. Elliott was out for six races due to a fractured tibia and Bowman was sidelined for three races with a fractured vertebra. Each made a valiant charge at the playoffs in the closing weeks with both drivers nearly finding victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course and Daytona International Speedway.
While not having the full fleet in the postseason is not what you draw up at the start of the season, team owner Rick Hendrick is focused on making sure that Elliott and Bowman finish the year strong and use the closing races of 2023 as a springboard for the next season in 2024.
"You just have to put your arm around them and say look, 'this happened. Now let’s get ready for next year. Let’s see if we can get better every single week as the year goes on. These races that are left. Let’s see if we can get in the top 10, get in the top five and win a race,'" Hendrick said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio's "The Morning Drive" program earlier this week.
"When Chase (Elliott) is out of the car and when Alex (Bowman) is out of the car, look at the time they lose with the others racing. Yeah, we got the information but the car has to be tuned to the driver. They get back in the car and they got to catch up. In this sport, you don’t catch up easily. People don’t wait for you. Even if you are on the same team and you have all the information, there is a difference in the feel of each driver and they each want something else. I see both of those guys coming on now. It just took time."
MORE: See where Elliott and Bowman rank on all-time wins list at Hendrick Motorsports
Hendrick also voiced support for each of the crew chiefs, Alan Gustafson (No. 9) and Blake Harris (No. 48).
"To Alan (Gustafson) and Blake (Harris), we have to say guys, 'we are 100 percent behind you. We know this is going to work. We just got to keep our heads up. There’s no pressure. Just do your job and let’s just take increment steps and we’ll get there.'"
The results show both drivers have started to hit their stride in recent weeks. Over the past five races, Elliott has one top-five finish, four top-10s, the second-best average finish (7.20) and the fifth-most points scored (178). That performance has helped the No. 9 team, which made the owner playoffs, advance to the Round of 12 in that postseason field. The group currently sits in ninth, just two points below the cutline. Elliott says he has approached the owner playoffs in the same way that he has approached being in the driver playoffs.
"It’s kind of surprised me in a way because obviously there is a lot of talk about the driver side and there is not really a lot of talk about the owner’s front," Elliott said. "Once the deal got started, I don’t feel any different than I have felt in years past. It still keeps us very motivated and keeps me motivated to want to go and do a good job.
"Now that we are here, it feels like another playoff year really in our approach and my approach."
Bowman has a top-five finish and three top-10s in the last seven races. He just missed nabbing top-10 finishes at Bristol Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. Those results have seen Bowman return to his early season form with first-year crew chief Harris, where he had six top-10s and was leading the points standings after seven races.
GET TEAM INFO: No. 9 team of Chase Elliott | No. 48 team of Alex Bowman
"We are in it for the long haul, not the short run. Let’s just focus on ourselves," Hendrick said of what he has told the drivers.
"I hate to see either one of those guys miss the playoffs because Alex was leading the points early in the year and had more top 10s than anybody. Chase was running good too. Things happen, life happens and you deal with it.
"… Tremendous pressure on those guys to see the other guys have won 10 races counting the All-Star Race. It's just human nature for them to feel pressure. I’ve tried to tell them you are putting the pressure on yourself. I know the fans want to see Chase win and Alex win. It’s coming. It will happen."