What We Know: 2016 a Mixed Bag for Hendrick


The Gibbs cars are the toast of the Sprint Cup Series

While it’s still too early in the 2016 season to jump to too many conclusions, this much is obvious: Joe Gibbs Racing has been the team to beat so far. After five races, JGR has one win – in the form of Denny Hamlin’s thrilling Daytona 500 triumph – and three of its four drivers in the top five in points. Matt Kenseth, the lone JGR driver outside the top five, has been fast at just about every race in 2016 but has simply been snake-bitten by bad luck. After JGR’s Kyle Busch won last year’s title in dramatic fashion, the organization owned by three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Joe Gibbs hasn’t missed a beat in 2016 and appears to be stronger than ever.

Early season has been mixed bag for Hendrick

It’s been an up and down start to 2016 for Hendrick Motorsports. First, the good news. Thanks to Jimmie Johnson’s wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, Hendrick is the only organization to reach Victory Lane multiple times this year. Also good is the fact that Johnson (second) and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. (eighth) are both in the top 10 in points, while their rookie teammate, Chase Elliott, has been impressive in recording three top-10 finishes and a pole in five outings. Now, the bad news. Elliott has two finishes outside the top 35, leaving him 16th in the standings. Meanwhile, the fourth Hendrick driver, Kasey Kahne, is 18th in the standings after posting just one top 10.

The new rules package is working

If there’s one thing that virtually every driver can agree on, it’s that NASCAR’s new low-downforce aero package for the Sprint Cup Series has been a smashing success. The 2016 rules package reduced downforce approximately 25 percent by shortening the spoiler and front splitter and moving to a smaller radiator pan. With the cars now harder to drive, more passing opportunities are being created, particularly at the front of the field, which have created overall better racing. Among those who have repeatedly praised the package is the sport’s 13-time most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I love that the cars are harder to drive,” the third-generation driver said. ”I think all the drivers wanted that, and I think all the drivers will say, ‘This is the right direction to go.”’

Austin Dillon is the most improved driver of 2016

Looking for the driver who has made the biggest gains from last season? You need not look very far. That distinction goes to third-year driver Austin Dillon, the oldest grandson of legendary team owner Richard Childress. Winless in his first two seasons, the former XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series champion has come out of the gate with guns blazing this year by recording three top 10s, a pole and an 11th-place finish in the first five races. After finishing 20th in points as a rookie and falling a position to 21st last season, Dillon is a solid 10th – likely good enough for him to make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time if he can avoid a major slip.

Kevin Harvick is performing like, well, Kevin Harvick

After five races, just one driver has five top-10 finishes. To virtually no one’s surprise, that driver is Kevin Harvick – the 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion. On the heels of a remarkable 2015 that culminated in a runner-up championship finish to Kyle Busch, Harvick and his Rodney Childers-led No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team have picked up right where they left off last year. With a handful of races in the books, Harvick has a win and a worst finish of seventh. He has led in all but one race and was the points leader heading into the Easter off-weekend. Impressive? Absolutely. But no one expected much less from Harvick, who has without question been the Sprint Cup Series’ most consistent frontrunner since joining Stewart-Haas and teaming with Childers heading into 2014.