While the motorsports world has been watching every move made by seven-time champion and, more notably in 2019, two-year winless driver Jimmie Johnson, something happened. The rest of the Hendrick Motorsports garage grew up.
It’s true that Alex Bowman, William Byron, and Chase Elliott are just a combined 70 years old (the same age as their boss, Rick Hendrick), but the seasoning the trio is starting to show was on full display at the Charlotte ROVAL on Sunday, helping all three drivers advance to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Round of 12.
Start with Elliott, the race winner. The world has already seen the sheer amount of talent the 23-year-old brings to the table. He won three times last season, has matched that so far in 2019, and has qualified for the playoffs every year he’s been in the Cup Series, but at the ROVAL he showed a maturity beyond his age. 12 laps into the final stage he misjudged his speed on a restart, locked up his tires, and smashed nose-first into the tire barrier in Turn 1.
“I cannot believe I just did that,” Elliott was heard saying on his team radio.
What happened next is what no one else could believe. Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy team fixed the damage, got him back on the track, and in the final 44 laps he moved from 37th to first, winning the race.
“The guys just didn’t quit,” he said after. “It was unbelievable, they fixed the thing the right way.”
And he celebrated the win by driving back to the tire wall that could’ve claimed his day and doing a burnout up against it.
“I was like, ‘Man, I gotta go redeem myself down here in this corner,’” he laughed.
Right behind Elliott at the finish line was probably the only driver in the field who defied more odds than Elliott did. Alex Bowman was sick all week leading up to the race, still qualified second, then was forced to the back of the field because he moved to a backup car. On the first lap of the race he misjudged the speed on the backstretch chicane, locked up his tires, and spun into Bubba Wallace. He was in last place and well below the playoff cutline.
Bowman didn’t give up though. On a 90-degree day where he’d end up being treated for dehydration after the race, Bowman got to 20th by mid-race, made 125 green flag passes, and worked his way to the front. Bowman, needing every place he could find to advance moved from sixth on Lap 104 of 109 to second, passing Harvick near the end of the race and holding him off coming to the line. The runner-up finish was Bowman’s fourth this year and absolutely his toughest.
“Probably about Lap 10 of the race, I was pretty done and out of it just from a physical standpoint,” Bowman said after. “I’m glad we were able to rebound and the guys obviously gave me a really strong car to get back through the field.”
That leaves the No. 24 of William Byron. The 21-year-old, Hendrick’s youngest driver, is still working on getting finishes, but he’s proving he is one of the best in the sport when he’s got clean air. Byron qualified on the pole at the ROVAL, his series-best fifth pole of the season to go along with five more runner-up starts. Byron led the first 21 laps, getting valuable stage points to make sure he’d advance to the Round of 12 in his first playoff appearance. He came back to lead again from Lap 76-77 and settled in for a sixth-place showing.
“It feels awesome,” he said after the race about advancing to the next round. “It was a goal accomplished.”
Then he brought out the maturity, spurred along no doubt by seven-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus.
“We had a good car and we could have gone for more, for sure, but I just wanted to finish the race,” he said. “I knew we were close on points so just to finish the race was a goal accomplished.”
Will the No. 48 Chevy of Johnson find Victory Lane again this year or in the future? It’s a question worth asking and a quest worth watching, but while we’ve been distracted by the adventures of Seven-Time, the young guns snuck up on us.
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