There was a time when seeing a Hendrick Motorsports driver in anything other than his NASCAR Cup Series car was like spotting a four-leaf clover. It was rare to see Rick Hendrick, ever the biggest fan of his pilots participating in extracurricular activities, give one of them permission to do so.
Hendrick didn’t want to take the slightest risk that something else would distract or, worse-case scenario, injure his drivers away from their Sunday work. But in recent seasons, this philosophy has changed significantly.
Take Kyle Larson’s signature. Larson has never hidden his love of dirt racing and expects anyone he competes for in NASCAR to give him the freedom to do so. Hendrick didn’t slow down his stacked dirt track program.
Also dirt-loving Alex Bowman has continued to not only field a car, but competes quite often himself. Chase Elliott runs more short track races, some dirt, and will make a second appearance in the SRX this year. And William Byron is stocking up on late model events.
“I absolutely think it’s important to do this,” said Hendrick Motorsports president and general manager Jeff Andrews. ” I congratulate [Rick] Hendrick and Jeff [Gordon] for supporting Kyle and his initiatives. Obviously, he is one of the most talented sprint car drivers around. Alex obviously always had an interest in his midget programs and different things. Alex and Kyle both left (Gateway) after our debrief and were heading to the race together.
However, time spent racing in other arenas seems to help in NASCAR. Hendrick Motorsports has once again run its four cars competitively while the drivers have something to give them an extra push in the arm.
“Apart from these guys’ running experience and hand-eye coordination, there has been a connection between our four guys with their outside running efforts,” Andrews said. “Kyle and Alex constantly talk about race cars or midget stuff on the plane. And seeing Chase get involved. William raced late model stuff and won. It’s a good experience for them. It reinforces their trust, and we are happy to support them whenever they wish.
Additional seat time was also transferred to NASCAR. Hendrick and Spire Motorsports worked together to field Byron, Bowman (main picture), and Elliott in the Camping World Truck Series this season. Bowman closed in on the Circuit of the Americas on March 26 and Byron won at Martinsville Speedway.
Plus, thanks to its partnership with JR Motorsports, a fifth Xfinity Series car is there if needed. Elliott was scheduled for the #88 car’s Mother’s Day weekend at Darlington Raceway, but missed the show when rain washed away qualifying. Byron finished second in the car at Texas Motor Speedway (May 21) and will return to New Hampshire (July 16), while Larson wins for Watkins Glen (August 20) and Darlington Fall Race (3 september) .
But going one step further, Hendrick Motorsports will pull a car out of its shop for the first time since 2009. The #17 Chevrolet will be on track in three upcoming races with Larson (July 2 at Road America), Bowman (July 30 at Indianapolis) and Byron (August 20 at Watkins Glen).
“At the end of last year, we were unsure of the benefit of this with the next generation and the relevance of this type of vehicle in the Xfinity series,” Andrews said. “We went out and ran a few races and obviously the experience for Alex in the truck at COTA and again for William at Martinsville seemed to pay off really well for those guys. They thought there was value in doing that.
“As we started to move forward and went to our riders and asked them to choose where they thought they would like to run an Xfinity race, the road courses came up the list very quickly. But JRM had already sold those races for someone else in their fifth car. So we decided to take this initiative and do it ourselves. I don’t know if we will do it again. I think if we had to do it again, we probably would have had more ahead with JRM and secure seats in this fifth car.
No matter who fields the car and in which series these days, it’s less of a surprise to see a Hendrick Motorsports driver outside the Cup Series garage.