Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

Upon Further Review: Big turnaround at Hendrick Motorsports but work remains

Leave a comment

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It was a celebration that seemed unlikely four months ago, let alone with 20 laps left in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Yet, after the checkered flag waved on the 2016 season, Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their Hendrick Motorsports team reunited on the champion’s stage.

While the organization earned its record 12th Cup title and Johnson scored his record-tying seventh, it doesn’t mask that this was one of the more challenging seasons for car owner Rick Hendrick.

As the No. 48 team and organization struggled, he asked Johnson and Knaus at one point this year if they were still good working together.

“I think it’s the toughest question when you have a relationship,’’ Hendrick said of why he would consider spitting Johnson and Knaus, who have been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002. “It can be in a dealership, it can be in a race team, when you have two guys that have been so good and you try to decide is it time? This year we started off really well, and then we hit a lull in the summer, and … we asked ourselves then, is this time, do we need to make a change?

“I think they have both made a commitment, they want to retire together. They want to finish their careers together.

“So when there’s problems, everybody kind of locks arms. This year the whole organization did (that) about the summer and the speed picked up for all the cars.’’

That’s what Hendrick Motorsports will need to do if it looks to rebound from such a challenging year. Consider:

— The organization endured a 24-race winless streak, its longest drought since a 28-race streak from 1984-86, dating back to the team’s inaugural season.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ fives victories this season were the fewest since 2011. The organization had averaged 10.25 wins a year in the previous four seasons. The last time Hendrick scored fewer than five wins in a season was 2000 when it had four.

Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman in place of Earnhardt) went winless for Hendrick this season.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ 29 top-five finishes  were the fewest since 2002 when the team had 23.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ 57 top-10 finishes were its fewest since 2005 when it had 49.

Johnson admitted last week that when his team was going through its struggles — he had three top-10 finishes in a 15-race stretch — he worried about the season.

“I thought we could make it through some rounds and maybe get to the Round of 8, Round of 12, but I didn’t think I could sit here and honestly tell you guys that we were a favorite for the championship or had a shot to win it,’’ Johnson said.

Things changed at Indianapolis. Johnson finished third and steadily the team’s performance improved, leading him to win three of the season’s last six races.

Now, Johnson looks toward a record-breaking eighth title.

“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,’’ Johnson said Sunday night. “I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.’’

RELAXED

Jimmie Johnson said that throughout the week and Sunday’s race he felt a sense of calm. He was so relaxed that during the 31-minute delay to clean up the nine-car wreck triggered by title contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, Johnson dozed off in his car.

“I actually took a brief nap in the car and kind of woke up to the news that we were going to restart fourth, which was the ideal position to be in on that restart,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports. “Instantly, I just felt a momentum shift and smiled and knew that this calmness that I had through the course of the race, there really was a reason and purpose behind it that served me in the end.’’

Still, how does someone sleep in a car when they’re awaiting the final laps of a race that could tie them with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series championships?

“It’s so warm and comfortable in the car,’’ Johnson said. “You get sleepy in there at times. There had been such an emotional rush through the course of the race and working so hard to get into position. We sat there and we sat there and we sat there. I’m not sure I was out long, but definitely relaxed enough and took a siesta.’’

PIT STOPS

Tony Stewart finished his Sprint Cup career with 49 wins, 187 top-five finishes, 308 top-10 results, 15 poles and 12,815 laps led.

— Tony Stewart confirmed he will not need any further surgery. “We are free and clear this year on surgeries,’’ he said.

Brian Scott, who is retiring, finished 15th. He only had two finishes better than that this season. He placed second at Talladega Superspeedway in October and 12th at Auto Club Speedway in March.

Michael McDowell finished 10th Sunday. It was his fourth career top-10 finish, but this marked his first top-10 at a track other than a restrictor-plate track.

AJ Allmendinger placed eighth at Homestead, ending the season with four top-10 finishes in the final six races.

Kyle Busch’s sixth-place finish secured Toyota’s first Sprint Cup manufacturer’s title. Toyota drivers won 16 of 36 races this season.

— Homestead marked the 10th race (of 36) that went to overtime this season.

— After his Homestead victory, Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks that host Cup races: Kentucky Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Watkins Glen International.

Despite crash, Elliott Sadler maintains lead in Xfinity points standings after Charlotte

Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Despite finishing 35th because of a late crash, Elliott Sadler maintained his Xfinity Series points lead Saturday after the Hisense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Sadler remained six points ahead of JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier. Teammate William Byron is ranked third.

With Allgaier and Ryan Reed qualified for the playoffs via victories, provisional playoff spots basesd off points currently belong to Sadler, Byron, Daniel Hemric, Darrell Wallace Jr., Brennan Poole, Matt Tifft, Michael Annett, Blake Koch, Cole Custer and Dakoda Armstrong.

Click here for the Xfinity points standings after Charlotte.

Xfinity Series results and statistics from Charlotte Motor Speedway

Jerry Markland/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ryan Blaney scored the fifth Xfinity Series victory of his career and first since September 2015, winning the Hisense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Blaney seized the lead from runner-up Kevin Harvick on a restart with three laps remaining.

Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Blaney led a race-high 107 of 200 laps.

Click here for full results from Saturday’s Xfinity race at Charlotte.

Ryan Blaney wins Charlotte Xfinity race for first victory in series since September 2015

Getty Images
Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Ryan Blaney won Saturday’s Hisense 4K TV 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Blaney took the lead from Kevin Harvick on a restart with three laps to go.

It’s his fifth Xfinity Series win and the first for Team Penske in 2017. It’s Blaney’s first Xfinity victory since Sept. 26, 2015 at Kentucky Speedway.

Blaney was followed by Harvick, Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin.

“I thought we were going to run out of laps to make it happen,” Blaney said, who was aided by a series of rapid cautions in the closing laps.

“We got a good restart and I was able to barely stay on (Harvick’s) quarter (panel) off of (Turn) 2 and dragged him back into (Turn) 3,” Blaney told Fox Sports 1. “I’m very proud, but you’re going to feel really bad if you mess up and don’t win. That’s what I thought was going to happen. I didn’t know if we were going to get our shot to get back to the lead. I don’t want to say the caution went our way because we kind of needed long runs. But they worked out so we could put ourselves in a position to  capitalize on it.”

Driving the No. 12 Ford, Blaney led four times for 107 laps on the way to the victory. Blaney raced to the front after starting from the rear for unapproved adjustments. He is the first driver to win after going to the rear since Marcos Ambrose at Montreal in 2011.

Blaney’s win comes 11 year after his father, Dave Blaney, won the fall Xfinity race at Charlotte. They are the first father-son duo to win at Charlotte in the Xfinity Series.

Stage 1 winner: Kevin Harvick

Stage 2 winner: Ryan Blaney

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: On the third lap of his Xfinity career, Christopher Bell was turned by Ryan Reed on the frontstretch and slid through the grass. He continued on and battled back to finish fourth. …. Brennan Poole brought out a caution with 42 to go after he got into the frontstretch wall, but managed to finish eighth. … Brad Keselowski finished sixth after starting 39th. He started there after multiple trips through inspection kept him from making a qualifying run. … Brendan Gaughan finished ninth after he spun exiting Turn 4 late in the race.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Michael Annett’s day ended with 25 to go when he got into the wall on a restart and went to the garage. He finished 36th …. On the next restart, points leader Elliott Sadler spun in Turn 4 and hit the inside wall hard. He was uninjured and finished 35th … Darrell Wallace Jr. was having his best race of the year, including leading three laps in the final stage, when it came unraveled. He brushed the Turn 4 wall with seven laps to go. He then lost a tire and spun in Turn 2. He finished 28th.

NOTABLE: Not counting the end of each stage, the race was slowed by 10 cautions.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Give him a sponsor, man. He passed me on a restart and drove away from me. It was awesome.” – Ryan Blaney on his battle for the lead with Darrell Wallace Jr. at the start of the final stage.

WHAT’S NEXT: OneMain Financial 200 at Dover International Speedway at 1 p.m. ET on June 2 on Fox Sports 1.

Kyle Larson fastest in final practice for Coca-Cola 600

Getty Images
Leave a comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Larson topped the final practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 with a speed at 186.400 mph.

The Cup points leader, Larson will start 39th in the race because his No. 42 Chevrolet didn’t clear inspection in time to qualify.

Ryan Blaney (185.861), Matt Kenseth (185.046), Kurt Busch (184.856) and Erik Jones (184.818) rounded out the top five.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh fastest at 184.433 mph. Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick was 20th fastest at 182.648 mph.

Jimmie Johnson recorded the most laps in the session with 47.

Jamie McMurray had the best 10-lap average at 180.914 mph.

The session was stopped for a caution once after Brad Keselowski spun exiting Turn 4.

Click here for the full practice report.