Hendrick Motorsports Struggles In St. Louis Are Red Flag For Championship Hopes

Kyle Larson and the Hendrick Motorsports team struggled at St. Louis
Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet, waits on the grid during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway | Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Hendrick Motorsports was one of the first organizations in the NASCAR Cup Series to find success with the Next Gen car model introduced for the 2022 season, but the one gap in performance could ultimately be the downfall of its chances at three straight championships.

HMS drivers Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman, respectively, won the first two races after the Daytona 500, and the organization’s four drivers combined to win five of the first 11 races of the season.

However, HMS Chevrolets were nowhere to be found near the front of the field Sunday in the inaugural Cup Series race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Larson led the HMS banner with a 12th-place finish, followed by Bowman in 13th. William Byron ran 19th, and Chase Elliott came in 21st, although his day was disrupted by an incident with Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace in the first half of the event.

Those finishes were also a fair representation of the bulk of the race. None of the HMS drivers had an average running position higher than 14th, and only Larson spent more than half the race inside the top 15.

Phoenix was also a bad race for Hendrick Motorsports

Organizations will have collective bad races from time to time, but the location of this race was crucial. WWT Raceway is a relatively flat, 1.25-mile oval that drives quite similar to the flat, 1.0-mile oval of Phoenix Raceway, where NASCAR holds its championship race at the end of the season.

HMS has obviously had plenty of success at Phoenix in past years and has won both championship races at the facility since NASCAR moved the season finale to the desert in 2020 after 18 years at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The new wrinkle this year is the Next Gen car. The Cup Series visited Phoenix for the first time with the new car in March, and HMS was also absent from the top 10 in that event. Elliott finished 11th, Bowman was 14th, Byron wound up 18th, and Larson ended up 34th after an engine problem ended his race early.

Elliott managed to lead 50 laps in that event, but the top-10 finishers at Phoenix were quite similar to the top 10 Sunday at WWT Raceway. Five drivers finished in the top 10 in both races, and Petty GMS Motorsports with Erik Jones and Kaulig Racing with A.J. Allmendinger were the only two new organizations to reach the top 10 at WWT Raceway compared to Phoenix.

Team Penske Fords have shown most promise at both Phoenix and St. Louis

If favorites for the championship are based on how teams perform at Phoenix and similar tracks, Team Penske drivers should be excited about their championship potential.

Aside from Joey Logano’s victory at WWT Raceway, the three-team Ford operation won the pole at Phoenix with Ryan Blaney taking the top spot, and each of its cars began Sunday’s race near St. Louis in the top 10. Blaney also led a race-high 143 laps before finishing fourth at Phoenix, and the organization combined to lead 60 laps among its three drivers at WWT Raceway.

Hendrick Motorsports, meanwhile, did not have a driver lead a single lap for only the second time this season, along with March’s road course race at the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas.

Luckily for team owner Rick Hendrick, the rest of the NASCAR Playoffs schedule features plenty of tracks where his organization has already had success this season. Byron nearly won at Darlington Raceway before Logano pushed him out of the way with two laps to go, and HMS has won three times on intermediate tri-ovals, which account for four of the first nine playoff events.

HMS also has as many resources as any organization in the sport, which is part of why it has an all-time record 285 race wins. The five months until the championship race at Phoenix should be enough time for the organization to make up ground on its flat-track program.

The July 17 race at the 1.058-mile flat oval of New Hampshire Motor Speedway will be another good measuring stick for how HMS cars compare to the competition at a facility similar to Phoenix.

HMS has approximately a month to make some gains before New Hampshire. If that also doesn’t go well, the second half of the season could be a mere formality if the organization is unable to keep up with the leaders when it will matter most.

All stats courtesy of Racing Reference.

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