There was a time when seeing a Hendrick Motorsports driver in anything but their NASCAR Cup Series car was like spotting a four-leaf clover. It was rare to see Rick Hendrick, never the biggest fan of his drivers participating in extracurricular activities, give his permission for one of them to do so.
Hendrick didn’t want to take any chances that something else would distract or, worse case, injure his drivers away from their Sunday jobs. But over the past few seasons, that philosophy has noticeably changed.
Take the signing of Kyle Larson. Larson has never hidden his love of dirt racing and expects that whomever he competes for in NASCAR will give him the freedom to do that. Hendrick didn’t slow down his stacked dirt track schedule.
Alex Bowman, also a dirt lover, has continued to not only field a car but is himself competing quite often. Chase Elliott is running more short track races, some dirt, and will make a second appearance in the SRX this year. And William Byron is getting his fill of late model events.
“I absolutely think it’s important to do that,” Hendrick Motorsports president and general manager Jeff Andrews said. “I commend [Rick] Hendrick and Jeff [Gordon] for supporting Kyle and his initiatives. Obviously, he’s one of the most talented sprint car drivers around right now. Alex has obviously always had an interest in his midget programs and different things. Alex and Kyle both left (Gateway) after our debrief and were headed to race together.”
However, time spent racing in other arenas seems to be helping in NASCAR. Hendrick Motorsports once again has all four of its cars running competitively while drivers have something to give them an extra shot in the arm.
“Outside of just the experience of those guys racing and the hand and eye coordination things, there’s been a bond that’s happened there between all of four of our guys with their outside racing endeavors,” Andrews said. “Kyle and Alex constantly talk about sprint car or midget stuff on the plane. And to see Chase get involved. William’s been running late model stuff and winning. It’s a good experience for them. It builds confidence for them, and we’re happy to support that whenever they want to do it.”
Extra seat time has also transferred to NASCAR. Hendrick and Spire Motorsports have worked together to field Byron, Bowman (main image), and Elliott in the Camping World Truck Series this season. Bowman came close at Circuit of the Americas March 26, and Byron won at Martinsville Speedway.
Additionally, through its partnership with JR Motorsports, a fifth Xfinity Series car is there if needed. Elliott was slated for the No. 88 car Mother’s Day weekend at Darlington Raceway but missed the show when rain washed out qualifying. Byron finished second in the car at Texas Motor Speedway (May 21) and will be back in it at New Hampshire (July 16), while Larson takes it for Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and the fall Darlington race (Sept. 3).
But in taking things a step further, Hendrick Motorsports will field a car out of its shop for the first time since 2009. The No. 17 Chevrolet will be on track in three upcoming races with Larson (July 2 at Road America), Bowman (July 30 at Indianapolis), and Byron (Aug. 20 at Watkins Glen).
“We were uncertain at the end of last year of what the benefit of that would be with Next Gen and the relevance to that type of vehicle in the Xfinity Series,” said Andrews. “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 bear some pretty good fruit for those guys. They felt like there was value in doing that.
“As we started to go forward and went to our drivers and asked them to pick out where they thought they’d want to run an Xfinity race, road courses came to light very quickly on the list. But JRM already had those races sold for somebody else in their fifth car. So we decided to just take that initiative and do it ourselves. I don’t know that we’ll do that again. I think if we had it to do over, we’d probably have gotten more in front of it with JRM and secured seats in that fifth car.”
Regardless of who is fielding the car and in what series these days, it’s less of a surprise to see a Hendrick Motorsports driver outside the Cup Series garage.