Column By: JORDAN BIANCHI / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – It may not have been the outcome that Hendrick Motorsports has historically come to expect, but considering its recent performance the four-car team has reason to be encouraged by its collective performance last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
The result saw Jimmie Johnson place fifth, William Byron sixth and Chase Elliott 13th. For Johnson and Byron, it represented their best finishes of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, while Elliott would’ve likely finished higher had pit strategy not worked against him toward the end. The lone outlier among the Hendrick teammates was Alex Bowman in 18th-place, who started the race in a backup car after crashing in qualifying.
“It’s good and it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Byron said.
But the indication that Hendrick Motorsports is making progress toward again being the dominant organization in the series customarily goes beyond just the finishing order at Texas. Whether it was practice, qualifying or the race, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets flashed speed all weekend unlike they have all season.
Johnson earned the Busch Pole for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 on Friday, then followed by posting the fastest 10-lap average speed in final practice on Saturday, which carried over to Sunday when the seven-time Monster Energy Series champion led a season-best 60 laps. Byron (second) and Elliott (third) also turned in impressive efforts in qualifying, and each backed it up by leading laps in the race.
“For me, I was just trying to get a consistent weekend,” Johnson said. “It is one thing to have one-lap paced, we needed that and we did that on Friday. Then, Saturday went really well. So, in the back of my mind I was thinking we just needed to have a rock-solid day, and if we did that, then I could confirm to myself and to everyone else that we are moving in the right direction.
“We are definitely moving in the right direction. We’ve had a lot of pressure on us, and everyone has stepped up and is getting it done. …
Shining at the 1.5-mile Texas oval was particularly encouraging for the Hendrick camp. Intermediate-sized tracks have been a recent area of weakness for the organization where its Chevrolets have frequently been outpaced by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Toyotas and the Fords of Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Although there may not be another intermediate track on the Cup schedule until next month, Johnson believes the momentum coming out of Texas can propel himself and Hendrick Motorsports organization forward. He comes into Bristol Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Food City 500 (2 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), feeling he has a realistic chance of snapping a personnel winless streak that has now stretched to a career-worse 66 races.
Johnson’s confidence heading into Bristol is further buoyed by his recent history at the high-banked, half-mile oval. Of his two-career victories there, one occurred in this race two years ago — his second-to-last Monster Energy Series victory. And last season, even amid a lackluster campaign where he found success fleeting, Johnson still scored top-10 finishes in both Bristol races — his third in the spring was a season-best.
“I feel much better about things,” Johnson said. “Absolutely. This is what we’ve been looking for.”
The optimism expressed by Johnson is shared by his Hendrick teammates that one of them can celebrate in Victory Lane on Sunday. Bowman finished fifth in the Food City 500 last year, followed Chase Elliott joining Johnson in finishing in the top 10 in the August Bristol race. The expectation is that they will be able to replicate those performances on Sunday.
“I can absolutely carry over what we learned at Bristol last year and put that to use this weekend,” Bowman said. “It is a strong racetrack for us. I think Bristol can be a great place for us and I am really looking forward to getting back there this weekend.”
DASH 4 CASH DEBUTS IN BRISTOL
Bristol Motor Speedway is the first of four Dash 4 Cash races for the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season where four eligible drivers will vie for a $100,000 bonus in the Alsco 300 on Saturday (1 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Christopher Bell of Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe and JR Motorsports teammates Michael Annett and Tyler Reddick are the eligible drivers competing to win the bonus by being the highest finisher among the four this weekend.
Bell, Briscoe, Annett and Reddick earned their eligibility by being the highest finishing Xfinity drivers among those eligible in last week’s Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway. Reddick finished second in that race, Bell third, Briscoe fourth and Annett sixth.
“You will more than likely have to win the race to win the bonus, so that is what our focus will be on,” Briscoe said.
The driver who collects the $100,000 on Saturday automatically earns a chance to win another bonus in the next Dash 4 Cash race April 12 at Richmond Raceway. The other three spots will be occupied by the next three highest-finishing Xfinity Series championship-contending drivers in the Alsco 300.
Additional Dash 4 Cash races are April 27 at Talladega Superspeedway and May 4 at Dover International Speedway.
Ryan Preece, a full-time competitor in the Monster Energy Cup Series, is the defending Xfinity Series race-winner at Bristol. Preece is not entered in the Alsco 300.