Rick Hendrick, an esteemed member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and owner of Hendrick Motorsports, believes that the introduction of the Next Gen car in the Cup Series last season has transformed the landscape of NASCAR racing. This shift has created a more level playing field for drivers to compete for race wins and championship titles.
Rick Hendrick’s organization, Hendrick Motorsports, stands on the brink of adding to its legacy this year, with two of its four Cup drivers, Kyle Larson and William Byron, constituting half of the Championship 4 set to compete at Phoenix Raceway for the 2023 title on Sunday.
The presence of both Larson and Byron in the Championship 4 comes as no surprise. Throughout the season, they demonstrated remarkable consistency, with Byron notably having a breakout year that included six wins, the highest in the series. Larson also had an impressive season, securing the second-highest number of wins, with four. Two of Larson’s victories were in the playoffs, and one of Byron’s.
Joining the Hendrick duo in the fight for the series championship, however, are two drivers who were not initially considered favorites entering the playoffs – Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell. While both won a race earlier in the season, they clinched clutch victories, with Bell securing one win and Blaney two during the playoffs. These victories propelled them into the title fight, even though their performance during the regular season was less dominant.
Last year’s Championship 4 featured a similar mix of drivers, including veterans Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, along with Bell and Ross Chastain, who were making their first appearances.
Hendrick remarked, “I think this is what kind of shows you – I won’t say anybody – but there’s probably 10 or 15 guys out there in the right position that could be in this playoff, be one of the guys in the final four. You look at the talent of the people out there, the way these cars equalize the field. On any given day you see organizations that rise to the top… I think it opens the sport up. I think it’s what Jim France wanted and what NASCAR wanted, and the fans wanted, to equalize the field and see multiple people have shots to win races.”
Hendrick attributes this shift in competitiveness to the new car and the fact that teams can no longer engineer their own parts and components. Instead, teams purchase almost the entire car from single-source suppliers.
He elaborated, “We’re basically racing the same car. When you look at the motors, they’re all pretty close… The wild card today is restarts, getting track position. Whether you get it with two tires, no tires, fuel only, whatever you do. I think what you’ve seen 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’s making the field more equal than it’s ever been.”
In light of these changes, the gap between teams has significantly narrowed and become more refined, especially in aspects like individual driving styles, pit crews, and strategic decisions. This transformation has opened doors for a wider array of drivers to secure race victories and compete for a place in the Championship 4.
Hendrick added, “Christopher Bell is a heck of a talent… The same with Ryan Blaney. I think he’s one of the most talented guys out there… I hate to have to race those two because they definitely are going to be hard to beat (but) I’m not surprised at all that they’re there.”
As the Championship 4 showdown at Phoenix Raceway approaches, it is clear that the Next Gen car has played a crucial role in reshaping NASCAR’s competitive landscape and allowing a diverse pool of drivers to excel.