by Dhruva Byrapatna
No.NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon is committed to the No. 88 for the rest of the 2016 season if that’s what Hendrick Motorsports needs. However, is that the right call and what’s best for the No. 88 team?
While NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been sidelined with his concussion symptoms, Jeff Gordon has been filling in for Hendrick Motorsports, driving a car other than the No. 24 for the first time in his NASCAR career. Gordon has run decently, placing 13th at Indianapolis and 14th at Watkins Glen, and is slated to drive for Dale Jr. until after Bristol. But should Gordon be the one filling in? Or should another younger driver take the reins until Earnhardt’s return?
While Jeff Gordon’s return to the track is a feel-good story, it’s not the best option for Hendrick Motorsports’ long term future. With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s career in jeopardy, Kasey Kahne struggling in the No. 5, and Jimmie Johnson getting older, the team needs to begin looking towards the future. The team’s development program has lagged behind Roush, Gibbs, and Penske for several years. With the exception of Chase Elliott, Hendrick hasn’t produced any highly touted prospects since Brad Keselowski jumped ship to Team Penske in 2010.
Hendrick Motorsports does have talented drivers in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series. Justin Allgaier is currently running 5th in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports. Drivers such as Alex Bowman and Regan Smith have performed admirably in part-time rides as well. In the truck series, 18 year old Cole Custer has shown a lot of promise. Although he’s struggled in the team’s first full year, his limited XFINITY starts have shown off his potential.
Hendrick’s future in NASCAR would be better served by taking advantage of Dale Jr.’s absence.
Despite Jr.’s statements that he wants to return to the car and extend his contract with Hendrick, another head injury could force him out of the ride for good. Instead of keeping Jeff Gordon in the No. 88 Chevy, the team would be better off cycling Bowman, Allgaier, and Custer through the ride. Gordon draws fans, but doesn’t help Hendrick prepare for the future. Giving drivers such as Allgaier, who scored a top-10 at the upcoming Bristol race last year despite driving for HScott Motorsports, would give the team a better handle on the quality of their prospects.
It’s no secret that Hendrick Motorsports has struggled this year. While still one of NASCAR’s top teams, they’ve lost ground to Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. The team needs to start planning for the future, looking for the next driver to be the face of the franchise alongside Chase Elliott. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s absence, although tough for the team and driver alike, is a rare opportunity for Rick Hendrick to get a glimpse of his team’s future. For the good of the team, Jeff Gordon should step out of the ride after Bristol (is still needed) and let a younger driver get a chance to race in the Sprint Cup Series.