Half of Hendrick Motorsports advanced to the Championship 4 to contend for the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series title.
The other half was left to maximize what was left and salvage a season as the playoffs rolled on without a chance at the drivers’ championship on the line.
While Kyle Larson and William Byron finished third and fourth in pursuit of championship glory at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 5, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman also finished nose to tail — for 16th and 17th places, respectively.
Injuries sidelined both Elliott and Bowman for periods of the 2023 campaign, making for an unusual set of circumstances for two perennial playoff contenders. Elliott missed six races due to a broken leg suffered in a snowboarding accident in March and missed a seventh race in June after a NASCAR-issued suspension. Bowman was out for four weeks after fracturing a vertebra in a sprint car crash in April. Neither driver had missed the postseason since joining Hendrick Motorsports — 2016 for Elliott; 2018 for Bowman — but those streaks came to an end in 2023.
With the help of relief drivers Josh Berry and Corey LaJoie, Elliott’s No. 9 team kept itself in contention for the owners’ championship and ultimately advanced to the Round of 8. The 2020 Cup champion turned in plenty of competitive performances but ended the season with four straight finishes of 15th or worse.
“Been some times of being decent, but you know, for the most part, been certainly not what I expect of myself and what we expect of our team,” Elliott said ahead of the season finale. “So yeah, a lot of room for improvement, and we intend to do a lot of that going into next year. … It all needs to be better.”
Elliott ends the 2023 campaign without a victory, his first winless season since 2017 and snapping a streak of five consecutive multi-win campaigns. Lack of visits to Victory Lane are not the only signal to learn, grow and improve — Elliott stressed those steps are taken whether he and his team are celebrating a championship or not. But there was plenty of reflection evident at Phoenix.
“You’re always wanting to be better,” Elliott said. “I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the things that I need to do better. For me, I’ve learned a lot about myself and just areas that I want to improve in and trying to tackle a lot of that this weekend, you know, and get a good head start on things we want to improve upon for next year.
“Lots of lessons and a lot about the car and what I want to feel and what I think I need to feel in the vehicle each week.”
The five-time defending winner of the Most Popular Driver Award also emphasized the significance of having crew chief Alan Gustafson, a veteran of the sport who’s worked with numerous Hall of Famers, at the helm of the No. 9 team to guide through the most adverse season Elliott has experienced at the Cup level.
“I think it’s really important,” Elliott said. “AG has always been right down the middle of the road. He’s no different when we struggle as he is when we won the championship. So it’s nice to have that, and I think that it sets a good example, and it’s taught me a lot of valuable lessons too because, you know, it’s easy when things are going good to get up too high, you know? And it can make the next time things don’t go well hurt more. I do think it’s important to just ride the wave as middle ground as you can. And I just think in the long haul, you’re better served.”
At the No. 48 team, Bowman and new crew chief Blake Harris came out of the gates strong, maintaining a top-five points position through each of the first six weeks of 2023 — including a three-week span as the series’ points leader.
That came to a halt after a 100-point penalty was dealt to both driver and owner following the April race at Richmond Raceway. Just three weeks later, Bowman experienced his sprint car crash, sidelining him through the NASCAR All-Star Race before a Memorial Day Weekend return for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The program never regained its early-season momentum, garnering one top five and three additional top 10s in the final 23 weeks of the season.
“We’ve had a lot of highlights, at least throughout the years,” said Bowman, who was victorious in each of the four prior years. “And this year, there haven’t been many of those other than leading the points at the beginning of the year. So it’s definitely been tough, but I feel like we’ve got a really good group. And I’ve learned a lot as a person on kind of how to handle some of those things, and yeah, definitely grown from it, for sure.”
In those final 23 races of 2023, Bowman finished inside the top 20 a total of 13 times, an obvious downturn after collecting nine such finishes in the year’s opening 10 events. He admitted there is “definitely a little bit of pain still” following his mid-spring injuries but said discomfort only truly arises at tracks that require heavy braking. But as his overall results dipped and the weight of personal disappointment increased, he realized a change in mindset and approach was necessary.
“I think the biggest thing for me is, like previous years, I would have a bad weekend and hold on to that for the whole week and make myself miserable the whole week and really kind of tear myself apart over like little mistakes,” Bowman said. “I think this year, there’s been so many bad weeks that I’ve really had to learn how to deal with them in a better way and be more positive about things and be able to positively look forward to the next weekend and just kind of be better at those things. So it wasn’t fun to figure out how to do, but definitely, I guess, a requirement of a 2023 season like this.”
Bowman lauded the support system he has around himself but largely worked independently to better his mental approach.
“I think for me, that was something I had to figure out on my own,” Bowman said. “Because I have had a lot of really positive people around me that have — I mean, I was teammates with Jimmie Johnson for a long time, and he could give you all the advice. But until you figure out what works for you, it’s difficult. So yeah, I just had to figure out what worked for me, and you know, bad days suck, but definitely have figured out how to be more positive throughout the week for sure.”
With the offseason comes an opportunity to set back from the week-to-week cycle and evaluate whatever issues have ailed the No. 48 team. The hope is to rekindle the consistency the group had to begin the 2023 campaign.
“I think some of it is being able to just push the reset button, right, and just kind of start over,” Bowman said. “But at the same time, you know, I think we have a good group on the 48 team and Blake and I are working well together. Like, Vegas, we were really fast, and I just crashed the car. So mistakes that I don’t typically see from myself. So that’s been frustrating. But you know, at the same time, there’s been a lot of weeks that we’ve just been way off. So just maybe hitting the reset button might help, but I think it’s important to try to end the season on a high note.”
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Harris’ inaugural season as a crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports clearly didn’t go to plan, but Bowman remains optimistic the duo will find their stride in the months to come.
“I feel like Blake and I have a really good relationship,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be around each other a lot to the offseason, like even when we’re away from the race track and Chili Bowl and stuff like that. So yeah, I mean, I don’t know that him and I need a reset between each other. I feel like we communicate well, but the season’s been tough. I mean, we’ve kind of been kicked in the teeth every week for the last six months. So just kind of getting away from that and being able to recharge a little bit will be nice for sure.”