LAS VEGAS — For the first time in 16 years Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson won‘t be a part of NASCAR‘s championship Playoff run. However, his three young teammates will.
Chase Elliott, 23, paced the championship organization with two wins — at Talladega and Watkins Glen — this season and heads into Sunday‘s playoff opener ranked seventh. The driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is a perfect 4-for-4 in qualifying for the Cup playoffs. His best championship finish was fifth in 2017 — his second year at the Cup level.
Alex Bowman, 26, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, earned his career first Cup victory at Chicago this summer to secure his second consecutive playoff run. He‘s ranked ninth heading into the Vegas opener.
And the series‘ youngest Cup driver, 21-year-old William Byron, brings the famed No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet back to the Playoffs. He‘s ranked 13th in the playoffs‘ points re-set and is already turning in a career year in top-fives (three) and top-10s (nine). He has won a team-best four pole positions too. And while it may seem like a stretch for the driver to have earned a playoff bid in only his second Cup season, Byron said that was actually the expectation.
“I think for our team we at least expected to make it for a while now,‘‘ Byron said. “We don‘t feel like we‘re just sneaking into the Playoffs or anything. We locked it in a couple races ago. So I feel good about that. I think the next step is just how do we perform in the Playoffs and how do we get to the next level of our progression as a program.‘‘
And with so much buzz surrounding the three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. – or the title talk about Team Penske’s high expectations to earn a second consecutive Cup title, Byron said he doesn‘t mind making his first playoff run perhaps a little more under the radar.
“It‘s a little bit of an advantage to have that lack of pressure on our team,‘‘ Byron said. “Our goal was obviously to make the Playoffs and to accomplish that has been really good. I feel like now we can focus more on executing the first three races and try to get through that round. So yeah, I don‘t think it really matters either way, but it does help that we don‘t really have that pressure on us.‘‘
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