Mr. Hendrick is well-positioned to add to the legacy of his Hendrick Motorsports organization this year with two of his four Cup drivers – Kyle Larson and William Byron – making up half of the Championship 4 that will compete on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway for the title in 2023.
The appearance of neither driver should come as a surprise.
Both were among the most consistent all season as Byron enjoyed a breakout year with a series-leading six wins, while Larson was second with four. Two of Larson’s wins came in the playoffs, while one of Byron’s wins did.
Joining the Hendrick duo in contention for the championship, however, are two drivers who were not considered favorites going into the playoffs – Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell.
Both won one race to start the year, but both scored quick wins – Bell one and Blaney two – in the playoffs, helping them to enter the title race against teams that enjoyed much more success in the regular season.
Last year’s Championship 4 consisted of a similar combination – veterans Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, along with Bell and Ross Chastain, both making their first appearances.
“I think that’s the thing that shows you — I’m not going to say anybody — but there’s probably 10 or 15 guys in the right position that can be in this playoff, be one of the guys in the final four,” Hendrick said.
“You see the talent of the people there, the way these cars level the playing field. On any given day, you see organizations rising to the top. … I think it opens up the sport. I think that’s what Jim France wanted and NASCAR wanted, and the fans wanted, to level the field and see a lot of people have a chance to win races.”
How the new car changed things
Hendrick believes the biggest change in competition with the new car is the inability of teams to design their own bits and pieces. Teams now buy almost the entire car from single-source suppliers.
“We’re basically racing the same car. When you look at the engines, they are all pretty close. I mean they’re within three or four horsepower of each other from Toyota to Ford to Chevrolet,” he said.
“The advantage in the sport today is the pit crews, having a really good pit crew that’s fast, guys that call the race without making any mistakes. Today’s wild card is a restart, gaining track position. Whether you take it with two tires, no tires, just fuel, whatever you do.
“I think what you saw with all the winners and how many people were in the 16-car playoff, I think NASCAR is getting what they want with the car. It makes the playing field more level than it has ever been.”
The division between teams thus appears to have become smaller and more precise – particularly in areas such as individual driving characteristics, pit crews and strategic calls.
This in turn opened the door for a wider field of drivers to take wins and even advance to Championship 4.
Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images
Josh Berry, Hendrick Motorsports, Ali Throwback Chevrolet Camaro, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Bodine.
“Christopher Bell is a great talent. I watched him in sprints and midges, I watched him compete. He has a great amount of talent. Joe Gibbs, his organization is one of the best,” Hendrick said.
“It’s the same with Ryan Blaney. I think he’s one of the most talented guys out there. The Penske organization, Roger (Penske) and Joe (Gibbs) are both good friends of mine. They lack nothing. I mean, they’re the best.
“I hate competing with those two because they’re definitely going to be tough to beat (but) I’m not surprised at all that they’re there.”