By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
What a difference a week makes.
Literally seven days ago, Hendrick Motorsports was still reeling from the biggest single day penalty to any organization in NASCAR Cup Series history and it was Tyler Reddick of 23XI Racing who fended off William Byron to provide a glimmer of hope for the rest of the garage.
Due to the 100 championship and 10 playoff point penalty and the injury to Chase Elliott, all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers faced long odds to reach the Championship Race in November. And maybe, just maybe, the confiscated louvers would be something akin to a kryptonite on their otherwise spec Next Gen Camaros.
So much for that.
Despite finding Hendrick Motorsports guilty of all charges levied upon them by NASCAR, the national motorsports appeals panel lessened its consequences, dropping the points element of the penalty. And just like that, all three current full-time Hendrick driver were right back inside the top-10 of the standings.
As if that wasn’t enough of a reminder of the current status quo, Kyle Larson and William Byron effectively dominated the Toyota Owners 400 on Sunday at Richmond Raceway with Larson and Josh Berry finishing 1-2 in part due to Byron getting crashed out of the top-5 on the penultimate restart.
This remains a Hendrick Cars Dot Com kind of world until otherwise stated, and that statement might lie in how the rest of the garage responds to precedence established by the national appeals panel.
Because, think about it, if you’re the other manufacturers and organizations in that garage, and the newly established punishment for pushing the boundaries is just fines and suspensions — that’s very much worth the risk.
At the same time, the risk is that neither Hendrick nor NASCAR is entirely being transparent about what the breakdown in communication was that led to those specific louvers being on the hoods at Phoenix.
Enter Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman Jeff Gordon after Sunday’s race.
“I said this in Atlanta, it should have never even come to that,” Gordon said. “I don’t want to give too much information because I want to respect the process, but it’s also a little frustrating that nothing gets shared from what determines whether there’s points given back or whether there’s money not given back and crew chief suspensions.
“I just feel like there was enough there that it’s not clear-cut. It’s not just a black-and-white situation because there was enough communication to justify why we showed up to the racetrack in Phoenix the way we did.”
Certainly, other teams at least smell an opening to make NASCAR’s still new spec car era a little less spec after this, at least until the mandated vendors begin consistently delivering parts that fit properly.
But until then, victories in the NASCAR Cup Series (not to mention the championship itself) will continue to run through Chevrolet and its flagship four-car organization in Hendrick Motorsports.
From a year over year standpoint, the racing product at Richmond was much improved thanks to the lower downforce package ordered for short tracks and road courses.
The track continues to be an abrasive high fall-off circuit, but the reduced downforce destabilized the cars enough to open up additional lanes for passing with increased action throughout the field as a result.
Granted he won the race but Larson endorsed it.
“I thought things felt more normal to the previous model car,” Larson said. “I felt like — last year here at Richmond you could follow somebody down to the bottom, and you would just get so tight. Even if they missed the bottom a little bit in front of you, you would get tight.
“But today seemed like normal. Like you could wrap the paint. If somebody missed the bottom in front of you, you could throttle up and get to their back bumper.
“So, I just didn’t feel as affected behind people in traffic. I was pleased with that. It seemed like there was more passing. It seemed like there was a little more coming and going compared to last year’s races.”
Downshifting wasn’t quite as prevalent this year either, but is still an option for drivers for when they miss the corner as grabbing a gear will stabilize the car and allow for driving off the center but it’s certainly directionally positive as they say.
The big test will be Martinsville in two weeks, a track that was significantly hampered by the higher downforce and shifting under the Next Gen platform.
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