DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Nine months from now, there will be a Jimmie Johnson-sized hole at Hendrick Motorsports.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion is set to retire at the end of the season, leaving an organization that once featured Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the hands of three drivers all under the age of 26.
So with the green flag set to drop on Johnson’s final season Sunday at the 62nd Daytona 500, how the team moves forward without him will certainly be a question Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron have to grapple with over the next year.
And the answers will surely vary.
“I feel like all four of us bring something different to the table,” Bowman said during Wednesday’s media day. “We haven’t really talked about it, though, so it’ll be interesting to see. You can’t just walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the leader of this deal’. It definitely has to happen organically over time. We’ll have to wait and see how that happens, who it is and all that.”
(From left to right) Hendrick Motorsports drivers William Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott will spend one final season with Jimmie Johnson before the seven-time champion retires from full-time Cup racing. (Photo: Brian Spurlock, USA TODAY Sports)
On the surface, Elliott certainly appears to be the next face of Hendrick Motorsports.
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver two years in a row, the 24-year-old will be HMS’s longest-tenured driver when Johnson steps away in November (five seasons), has six wins over his past two seasons, and has made deep playoff runs each of the past three years.
“I definitely think he’s the leader in the group moving forward,” Johnson said, adding that Elliott reminds him of a younger Dale Jr. “Chase has been on his own path, though. I’m so proud of him, and who he is and how he goes about his business.”
In Elliott’s eyes, replacing Johnson isn’t possible.
“He won five (championships) in a row,” Elliott said. “Think about that. The seven championships is amazing, but five in a row? That’s about how many times I’ve won a race, which isn’t saying much. It probably won’t happen ever again.”
While Elliott’s six wins pale in comparison to Johnson, he’s well ahead of his two Hendrick teammates. Bowman has one career win (last summer at Chicagoland Speedway) while Byron has yet to visit victory lane in his two full seasons.
Both, however, began to show signs of life last year, with Bowman leading the Hendrick charge during the summer months.
“They’re young, but Chase and Alex, to me, with the amount of years they’ve been in racing and working on stuff … they’re old souls,” Johnson said. “They’ve been around racing so much and so often, I just don’t feel like they’re that young.”
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Byron, 22, is the youngest of the group, but believes all three drivers can contribute to replacing Johnson next season, similar to the structure used over at Joe Gibbs Racing.
“I think that’s the best sign of an organization, as you see with Kyle (Busch) and Denny (Hamlin), Martin (Truex Jr.), Erik (Jones), how well they do of all four of them contributing,” Byron said. “I think that’s what has to happen. All four guys have to contribute at a high level so that everyone is better.”
If Elliott has his way, that’s exactly what’ll happen when Johnson rides off into the sunset in November.
“Nobody walks around the shop with a sticker that says you’re the face of Hendrick,” he added. “I’m going to keep doing my thing … just going to be me. I’m not the loud guy in the room. I’m not going to be the one that’s super talkative, this or that. I’m going to go about my business the way I like to go about it.
“Hopefully that’s good enough.”
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