HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon reacts with team owner Rick Hendrick in Victory Lane after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

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

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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.

NASCAR announces enhancements to race formats

TALLADEGA, AL - OCTOBER 23:  Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Lite Ford, lead the field to the green flag during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hellmann's 500 at Talladega Superspeedway on October 23, 2016 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR revealed enhancements to the race format Monday that are intended to create more urgency and make the regular season more meaningful.

Under the new system, for the first time, points will be awarded during the 26-race regular season that carryover through the playoffs, all the way until the season finale in Miami.

The adjustments will be for all three series — Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series — and come after collaboration and input from industry stakeholders, including drivers and teams.

NASCAR also noted that the alterations to the race format will allow fans to see more racing, minimizing green-flag laps missed because of natural breaks.

“Simply put, this will make our great racing even better,” said Brian France, NASCAR chairman and CEO, in a statement. “I’m proud of the unprecedented collaboration from our industry stakeholders, each of whom had a common goal – strengthening the sport for our fans. This is an enhancement fully rooted in teamwork, and the result will be an even better product every single week.”

Every race will consist of three stages with points earned in each stage. The Daytona 500 will not be altered. Stage points will be awarded in the duel qualifying races, which are held three days before the Daytona 500.

Points will be awarded to the top-10 finishers in each of the first two stages of a race. The stage winner will receive 10 points. Points will descend to the 10th-place finisher, who will receive one point.

The race winner will receive 40 points. Second place will collect 35 points with third earning 34 points. That descends one point per position. The driver who finishes 35th receives two points. Any driver who finishes 36th or worse scores one point.

There will be no bonus points awarded for leading a lap.

If a driver wins both stages and the race, they’ll score a maximum 60 points for the event.

A race will be deemed official at the end of the second stage. If the race ends at that point, the leader would receive the stage points and race points.

NASCAR also announced a playoff bonus structure that will see the regular-season points leader honored.

The regular-season points leader will be given a 15-point bonus that will be added to the driver’s reset total of 2,000 points. The driver who is second in the standings after the regular season ends receives a 10-point bonus. That descends to a one-point bonus for the driver 10th in the standings. Drivers 11th or lower who qualify for the playoffs do not receive a bonus.

The bonus points carry through the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Also, the winner of the first two stages of each regular-season race would receive one bonus playoff point to be added to their reset total before the playoffs begin. The race winner will receive five bonus playoff points to be added to their reset total.

Those bonus points also can be earned in the playoff races. Thus, a driver who wins the playoff opener at Chicagoland would receive five points that would count to their total.

A race win will still help a driver and team qualify for the playoffs. NASCAR will no longer use the term Chase

The overall structure of the playoffs remains the same. There will be 16 drivers who make the playoffs in Cup (12 in Xfinity and eight in the Truck Series)

In Cup, four drivers will be eliminated after each round, leaving four to compete for the title in the season finale in Miami.

The season finale in Miami will remain unchanged. Four drivers will compete for the title with the one finishing highest among the group the series champion.

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Liberty University back as primary sponsor for William Byron’s jump to Xfinity Series

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Photo courtesy JR Motorsports
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William Byron is an A-plus student in Liberty University’s eyes.

That’s why the private Virginia school will return in 2017 as primary sponsor for Byron, a freshman at the school, as he is promoted to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

The 19-year-old Byron, who will drive for JR Motorsports, made the announcement on a Facebook Live stream Monday.

Liberty sponsored Byron last season in the Camping World Truck Series, where he was a runaway winner for Rookie of the Year, earning a series-high seven wins and finished fifth in the final season standings.

In addition, Byron set a Truck Series rookie record not only with his seven wins, but also with 11 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes.

Byron will once again carry the school’s colors in 2017 as he jumps to NASCAR’s junior league. Liberty will be primary sponsor on Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro for 17 of the Xfinity season’s 33 races, and will serve as an associate sponsor for the other 16 races.

“Welcoming back both William and reuniting with Liberty University, it feels like a homecoming for us,” JR Motorsports general manager Kelley Earnhardt Miller said. “It’s remarkable to see how quickly William has advanced his talents since he drove for our Late Model team (2014-15). With the support from Liberty, we have a strong platform for him to have success at the Xfinity level.”

Liberty University will be on Byron’s car in his first career start in the Xfinity Series in its season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 25.

Also, it was announced Dave Elenz will serve as Byron’s crew chief in 2017. Elenz spent the last two seasons as crew chief for JRM’s No. 88 Xfinity Series team, leading it to four wins with drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick.

“It’s a privilege to have Liberty University on board with us in 2017,” Byron said. “I’m also looking forward to working with Dave. He brings a lot to the table in terms of experience and leadership in this series. That will go a long way in helping our No. 9 team on the track this year.”

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Hooters joins Chase Elliott sponsorship program for 2017-18

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Chase Elliott has added a new high-profile sponsor for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday that the Hooters restaurant chain will serve as primary sponsor for two races in each of those seasons, as well as serve as a associate sponsor for all of the other races in both seasons on Elliott’s No. 24 Chevrolet SS in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

Elliott’s two races with Hooters primary sponsorship this season will be May 7 at Talladega and Nov. 12 at Phoenix.

Hooters has had a long sponsorship history in NASCAR, with its colors gracing cars for over 150 Cup-level races over the years. Most prominent was the 1992 season when it served as primary sponsor on Alan Kulwicki’s championship-winning Ford.

Ironically, Kulwicki beat Elliott’s father, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, by 10 points to win that season’s championship.

“Twenty-five years after being part of one of the most memorable seasons in NASCAR history, Hooters is excited to support another amazing talent in Chase Elliott and the No. 24 team,” Hooters chief marketing officer Carl Sweat sweat said in a media release.

Elliott earned Cup Series rookie of the year honors in 2016, with 10 top-five finishes, 17 top-10s and two pole positions.

“Hooters has a historic place in this sport, and I’m glad they’re back,” Chase Elliott said. “Our entire team is looking forward to making the program a success.”

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Lady Antebellum to highlight Daytona 500 pre-race show

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Photo courtesy Daytona International Speedway
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Seven-time Grammy Award winners Lady Antebellum will highlight the Feb. 26 pre-race show for this year’s Daytona 500, Daytona International Speedway officials announced Monday.

The multi-platinum CD-selling country trio will take the stage not only prior to the 2017 season-opening and 59th edition of the Great American Race, but also the first race under Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series entitlement sponsorship.

Lady Antebellum – made up of Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott and Dave Haywood – will be on hand to promote its sixth album, Heart Break, which is due for release on June 9, with the first single being “You Look Good,” which will be the cornerstone to kick off a six-country “You Look Good World Tour.”

Lady Antebellum is no stranger to DIS: they performed a pre-race concert prior to the 2008 Coke Zero 400 and also played at last year’s inaugural Country 500 Music Festival.

“’The Great American Race’ will have one of today’s great American country music acts front-and-center for our fans to enjoy,” DIS President Chip Wile said in a statement. “Lady Antebellum continues a long-standing DIS tradition of attracting major stars from the world of entertainment to the ’World Center of Racing’ and the Daytona 500.”

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