Hendrick Motorsports’ recent run, Jimmie Johnson’s win has competitors on notice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Competitors saw this coming, yet there was nothing they could do to stop it.

After a lackluster summer that led some people to question how far Jimmie Johnson would advance in the Chase, Hendrick Motorsports has returned to prominence.

Johnson’s win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway moves him into him into the Round of 8 and alters the feeling of this Chase.

“I think people would probably rate them as probably the favorite,’’ said car owner Joe Gibbs, whose teams have won a series-high 11 of 30 races this year.

Even as David Wilson celebrated Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Dover, the president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, said he knew a challenge was coming from Johnson’s team.

“What struck me as much as winning the race (at Dover) was how good (Johnson) was,’’ Wilson said Sunday.

Johnson didn’t contend for the win at Dover because of a pit road penalty. A speeding penalty prevented him from racing for the win at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase last month. Johnson’s team had no issues Sunday, leading 155 of the 334 laps to score his first win since March.

Johnson and his team have been mistake-prone this summer because they’ve been pushing to try to catch up to the Toyotas. But with the cars better, Johnson and his team showed that they no longer have to operate within a razor-thin margin of error.

“The easiest way to describe it would be I don’t have to scare myself to put up a good lap time,’’ Johnson said of what’s changed with his car since this summer.

Earlier this season, Johnson couldn’t make the car comfortable. The result was a 14-race stretch where he did not lead more than five laps in any race.

Now, he can.

“To have the car as consistent and stable as it is has really allowed us to be competitive, work through traffic, work through changing track conditions, and then if I do need to go out there and scare myself and pull away from (Matt Kenseth) or pull away from (Denny Hamlin), I can do it and get rewarded for it,’’ Johnson said.

That was no more apparent than the final restart. Kenseth led and had the preferred line. When the green waved, they went through Turns 1 and 2 side by side and drag raced down the backstretch, a mano-a-mano battle between Chevrolet and Toyota with Johnson’s Chevrolet pulling ahead and then pulling away.

“We were just a little off,’’ Kenseth said. “I just couldn’t run (Johnson) on a short run. I don’t think I could have done anything different there.’’

Kenseth wasn’t the only one searching for more speed Sunday. Brad Keselowski finished seventh — his lowest finish in the first four Chase races — but crew chief Paul Wolfe wasn’t thrilled.

“I feel like the Gibbs cars, we’re close to those guys, but it’s like the Hendrick cars and (Truex) have had the raw speed,’’ Wolfe said. “I feel like we’ve kind of been tit-for-tat with the Gibbs cars, depending on track position or balance. We’re just off right now.

“We could not get the speed to maintain in the top five once we got that track position.

Wolfe said that if he can’t find the speed, he’ll have to be more aggressive to make up for the deficit.

It isn’t just Johnson who has been fast for Hendrick. Chase Elliott led at least 75 laps for the second time in four races Sunday before he was collected in a crash on a restart. Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his fifth top-10 result in the last six races — his best stretch all season.

“Nobody ever gave up, and you know, we know what a champion Jimmie is,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were good here in the May race. We’ve been good on the mile‑and‑a‑halves, and we’ve been better than we’ve finished. But this feels good.’’

To all but the competition.

Now Johnson in set for the Round of 8 and the rest of the Chase field has two races to determine who will join him.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman share thoughts on possible restrictor plates in Brickyard 400

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The Xfinity Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this July will work as a testing ground for the future use of restrictor plates at the historic 2.5-mile track.

NASCAR announced earlier this week the July 22 race would be raced under the influence of the plates that have previously only been used at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and one Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000.

Depending on the effectiveness of the plates on the level of competition, they could be used in future Cup Series races at the track.

On Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he was “up for whatever” in hopes of improving the racing at a track that seen drastic declines in attendance in the last decade.

“That race is really suffering as far as the show and how entertaining I think it is to watch,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t really know what the answer is to make it more exciting, but I think this is a great opportunity to find out if this is the direction to go.  I am all for it. And I like the idea of trying it in the Xfinity Series or the (Camping World) Truck Series or what have you whatever track it is at to try it in that feeder series.  That is an opportunity to see if we can get it right without ruining anything for the Cup guys.”

NASCAR has been visiting IMS since 1994 and will return for the 24th Brickyard 400 weekend this summer. But the competition level in the race has paled in comparison to what’s usually seen two months earlier in IndyCar’s Indianapolis 500.

“I think NASCAR watches the Indy 500 and they see those guys drafting and passing and they are competitive,” Earnhardt said. “They have to try to put on that type of show if not better at that race track.  It is not good in conversation to have the IndyCar race be more exciting to watch than the NASCAR race there.  That is just business.  I think it’s great for them to be aggressive.”

Earnhardt referenced the big swing NASCAR took in the Brickyard 400 two years ago when Cup cars had an aero package that included nine-inch spoilers, an attempt at creating pack racing. The result was disappointing and widely panned.

NASCAR held a three-car test at IMS last October to try out eight different configurations with restrictor plates that included various splitter heights and gear ratios. The setup that will be used will also include NASCAR’s first ever use of “aero ducts.”

Xfinity teams will also use the 2016 specs for splitters and spoilers.

When it comes to the restrictor plates, 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman said his view of restrictor plates is they are used where there is a need for “a balance there on speed and safety.

“I don’t know what their sim results are or what their testing has been to validate what needs to be done, but I believe it’s all based off of safety,” Newman said of the decision to use restrictor plates. “Indianapolis is unique in the fact that the corners really are kind of 90 degrees. You never really hit at 90 degrees, but you’re hitting more so at a sharper angle than you are at a place like Fontana or Michigan or even at 1.5-mile race tracks. … But given the driver’s throttle response and acceleration and the ability to pass people is equally important. And we’ve seen some racing that gets pretty spread out at Indianapolis. I don’t know if a restrictor plate would make that the same or worse; or even better for that matter. To me, I think the restrictor plate, or at least the term restrictor plate, is usually more about safety and top speeds than it is anything else.”

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Starting grid for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400

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With the second pole of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Kyle Larson will lead the field to green Sunday in the Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway.

Joining Larson the front row is Denny Hamlin.

Filling out the top five is Brad Keselowski, Martin Treux Jr. and Ryan Newman.

Click here for the starting grid.

Kyle Larson wins pole for Auto Club 400, second Cup pole of career

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Kyle Larson ended a three-year drought by winning the pole for the NASCAR Cup Series’ Auto Club 400.

Larson won his second Cup Series pole with a speed of 187.047 mph around Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. His first pole came in the August 2013 race at Pocono Raceway.

The pole continues Larson’s impressive start to 2017. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver leads the point standings after earning three consecutive second-place finishes.

“I felt like messed up there in Turn 1 and 2 and I got a little bit loose off the wall on the entry and it got me to split the seam in (Turn) 1 and 2,” Larson told Fox Sports. “I was able to commit to (being) wide open off (Turn) 1 and 2. I hadn’t ran up high in (Turn) 3 and 4 at all in practice or qualifying here. Didn’t really know what I would have out there but ran a good ways and it stuck. … Our Target team has been really amazing to start the season and to get a pole is great. … Got a little team dinner tonight, so this will be a good thing to celebrate.”

Larson’s run knocked Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin from the top spot. As Larson drove down pit road, a Fox Sports camera caught Hamlin playfully showing his dissatisfaction by emptying a cup of ice in the direction of the No. 42.

“This is No. 1 on my list of track I want to win,” Hamlin told Fox Sports. “It’s bitten me mentally and physically … definitely one I want to check off.”

Filling out the top five is Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr and Ryan Newman.

Daniel Suarez qualified 10th for his best career Cup start.

No Hendrick Motorsports entries will start in the top 10. Kasey Kahne was the top qualifier in 12th, followed by Chase Elliott.

Five cars did not make qualifying attempts, with one of them being by choice. Jimmie Johnson’s team elected not to make an attempt following his accident in practice. He will start 37th.

Joining Johnson at the back of the field will be Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Matt DiBenedetto and Gray Gaulding. All of their cars did not make it through inspection in time to qualifying.

Click here for qualifying results.

Jimmie Johnson’s team elects not to make qualifying run after accident in practice

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Following Jimmie Johnson’s accident in practice early Friday, Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team chose not to qualify with a backup car at Auto Club Speedway.

Johnson, a six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, will start 37th in Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

Four other cars, including those of Joey Logano and Trevor Bayne, will start in the back after they did not make qualifying attempts. Their cars failed to get through inspection in time. Rookie Gray Gaulding and Matt DiBenedetto also did not qualify because their cars failed to get through inspection.

Johnson explained his team’s decision.

“We had a tough practice session and mid-pack was probably going to be our goal anyway,” he said. “So, to take our lumps here, at a track that’s really wide with a lot of lanes, a long race; we’ll just take our lumps and get the car right where we can take advantage of the precious minutes that we have in Saturday’s practice session and go from there. Pit road is going to be a problem. We’re not going to have a great pick there. We’re definitely not in a position we want to be in, so we’d rather take the time now and make sure we get everything right and get this car right; and also kind of control our risk factor.”

With ACS being such a wide race track with plenty of passing opportunities, Johnson is not in as bad a position to start Sunday’s race as he would be at more narrow track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang he wasn’t comfortable forcing Johnson to “hustle” to qualify a car he hadn’t practiced in.