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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: Will Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch advance in playoffs?

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The last two drivers to win NASCAR Cup titles are in precarious positions ahead of the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Kyle Busch, the 2015 champion, is outside the top eight in ninth. He sits seven points behind defending champion Jimmie Johnson.

NASCAR America analysts Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman debated who they think had the best chance to advance to the Third round after Sunday.

Petty put his money behind Busch, who has finished in the top five in each of his last five starts at the 1.5-mile track.

“He’s one of the big three: Truex, Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson,” Petty said. “I don’t see where these (last) two races (Charlotte, Talladega) have changed anything. The one thing Kyle Busch brings into Kansas City … he brings speed. These guys have had speed all year-long.”

Johnson on the other hand has produced only four top fives all season and just one since he won at Dover in June.

But Kligerman explained why he thinks the seven-time champion will prevail on Sunday.

“Jimmie Johnson knows how to pass and that is what has become evident throughout this season,” Kligerman said. “No, they have not had the fastest cars at Hendrick Motorsports. No, they have not qualified well. They’ve actually been sort of abysmal at qualifying of late.

“… He has three wins this year. Two of those he started at the back.”

Watch the video for more.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Daniel Hemric, Daniel Suarez’ racing roots

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to preview the Round of 12 elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Kyle Petty and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut.

On the show:

  • We’ll debate which past Cup Series champion will advance to the Round of 8. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson currently leads 2015 champ Kyle Busch by only seven points for the final transfer spot. Who has the edge going into Kansas this Sunday? This elimination race will be a heated competition just to finish above the cut line. Log on to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote and weigh in!
  • Xfinity Series playoff driver Daniel Hemric calls into the show to talk about his chances of advancing to the championship four in Miami. He’ll also describe his experience being one of the four drivers to participate in the recent tire test at the Charlotte Motor Speedway “Roval.”
  • We take a look at the Daniel Suarez’s Racing Roots and discuss his transition from Xfinity Series champion to Monster Energy Cup Series rookie.
  • Parker Kligerman hops into the iRacing simulator to preview Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, as well as the Formula 1 race in Austin, Texas.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Daniel Hemric gets unexpected introduction to Cup car at Charlotte road course test (video)

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Being a native of Kannapolis, North Carolina, a lot of Daniel Hemric‘s racing firsts are connected to Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The 26-year-old Xfinity Series driver got another one this week when an unexpected call shortened a vacation to Mexico and put him in a Cup car for the first time.

Hemric, who drives Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet in his rookie season, was visiting the country as part of a birthday vacation for his wife, Kenzie.

“As soon as the wheels touched down I got a call from some guys a RCR asking ‘Hey, would you mind driving a Cup car Tuesday at a test?'” Hemric said Wednesday.

“Do I need to fly home right now or what?” Hemric responded.

Come Tuesday morning, Hemric was sitting in the cockpit of Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet as one of four drivers taking part in the first Goodyear tire test on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course, a 2.42-mile, 18-turn circuit made up of most of the original 1.5-mile track and the infield road course.

MORE: Cup drivers share thoughts on Charlotte road course

The two-day test could give Hemric a step up on his Xfinity competition as the series also will run on the road course next year.

“The first two or three runs was about getting me acclimated (to the car) but since then I think we’ve done a good job of communicating with Goodyear and trying to figure what we need to be able to make sure fans will be able to see racing and side-by-side racing and a lot of action, which I think you’re going to see.”

Added Hemric: “These Cup cars get up to speed so quick compared to the Xfinity car, with such low downforce and high horsepower. It’s been fun to figure out how to get that laid down here around the roval.”

Luckily, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray were all experiencing the road course for the first time.

“Obviously, being my first time in (a Cup car), you’re trying to be aware of what you’re doing yourself,” Hemric said. “But to be able to lean on those guys, have the same thoughts as them, really collaborate with NASCAR and the race track to figure out where we should place those chicanes and all that stuff. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress working as a group.”

MORE: Daniel Hemric returning to RCR in 2018

 

Spencer Boyd will compete in Xfinity full-time in 2018 for SS Green Light Racing

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SS Green Light Racing announced Thursday Spencer Boyd will compete full-time for it next season in the Xfinity Series.

Boyd will drive the No. 76 Chevrolet sponsored by Grunt Style, a veteran-owned lifestyle brand.

Boyd, 22, has made four starts for the team this year in the No. 07 Chevrolet, which has primarily been driven by Ray Black Jr.

“This is the day I’ve been waiting for my whole life,” Boyd said in a press release.  “I’ve been racing something since I was 5 years old with the dream of making racing my career. Grunt Style has made my dreams come true.”

A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Boyd has 12 starts between the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series. In six Xfinity starts, including the four this year, his best result is 27th at New Hampshire.

Jason Miller will serve as the crew chief on the car that is owned by Bobby Dotter. Dotter has fielded cars in 116 races in the Xfinity Series since 1995 and 305 Truck Series entries since 2004.

“(Spencer) is one of the hardest working drivers I’ve seen,” Dotter said in the press release. “He is at the shop everyday helping with the cars and making the guys laugh.  Our organization is better because the team believes it when he says this is a team sport.  We are looking forward to a great 2018 season.”