Changes in place, Hendrick Motorsports looks ahead to 2018 season

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Coming off what was a disappointing season for Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott are ready to move on to 2018, a season that presents a new Chevrolet and new opportunities.

Johnson admits that when the checkered flag flew in the season finale in Miami less than two weeks ago “I couldn’t find a beer fast enough and started popping some cold ones to try to forget a tough close to the end of the season.’’

While Hendrick placed three drivers in the playoffs — Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne — the organization’s four wins were its fewest in a season since 2000.

WATCH: NBCSN to air special NASCAR America at 7 p.m. ET Thursday, followed by Cup Series Awards Show at 9 p.m. ET. (Watch Cup Awards Show online here)

Johnson won three races but none after his June victory at Dover. Kahne won the Brickyard 400, which was his only top-10 finish in a 19-race stretch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t have a finish better than fifth. Elliott had five runner-up finishes but remains winless.

Elliott called those runner-up results “learning the hard way, but you definitely do learn things from those situations. I definitely have. I can probably say I’ve learned more from the second-place finishes this year than I did the ones last year.’’

Now, Hendrick heads into a season of change.

The 2018 driver lineup features Johnson, Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron. Johnson is the only driver among the group to win at the Cup level.

‘It’s definitely going to be different for sure,’’ Elliott said this week in Las Vegas of the 2018 look for Hendrick Motorsports. “I think the guys that are coming over in Alex and William, they’ve proven that they know how to race. They don’t need any help to be good race car drivers. They’re going to win races and be contenders, I have no doubt.’’

That’s just among a series of changes for the team. The organization announced in August eight leadership promotions.

“Obviously 2018 is right around the corner and internally we have a lot going on at Hendrick Motorsports, not only the two drivers that are coming in but the way we produce cars, where crew chiefs live, how our engineering department functions and where they’re located,’’ Johnson said this week in Las Vegas. “All of that is shifting around right now, there’s a little bit of construction taking place at Hendrick. Lump all that together with the new car that we have with the Camaro that is coming out in 2018. We need to learn lessons from last year, but we have a lot to look forward to moving into 2018.’’

The Camaro ZL1 will make its debut in Daytona. Chevrolet teams hope the new car will be as strong as Toyota’s updated Camry this past season when it won 16 races, including eight of the 10 playoffs races and helped Martin Truex Jr. to the championship.

“I think everyone has done their homework from that perspective,’’ Elliott said of the new car. “I’ve put a lot of trust in my guys and the people at HMS and Chevrolet to make those right decisions and everyone feels like they have, so we’ll find out.’’

It adds to a lot of change for an organization that seeks more victories.

“I think that the changes taking place for us is change in the right direction, is going to bring the company closer together, produce a better product, more competitive cars,’’ Johnson said. “I’m really looking forward to 2018. The decisions we’re making now will have a director improvement on 2018, but I think as we stack a couple of years on it will only strengthen further out.’’

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NASCAR’s Saturday schedule for Martinsville Speedway

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A busy day is scheduled for NASCAR at Martinsville Speedway with the Camping World Truck Series race followed by qualifying for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here’s the full schedule for day with TV and radio info.

All times are Eastern

7 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

7:30 a.m. — Truck garage opens

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

11:05 a.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-truck/three rounds (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Truck driver-crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

1:30 p.m. — Truck driver introductions

2 p.m. — Alpha Energy Solutions 250; 250 laps/131.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:10 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Without NASCAR ride, Blake Koch devoting energy to helping younger drivers

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Blake Koch‘s son Carter is 5, but he’s already developed some understanding of how NASCAR works.

“All he’s ever known is me as a race car driver,” Koch tells NBC Sports. “He’s smart enough to know now that when Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. retired and Matt Kenseth retired and Danica (Patrick) retired, he now knows what retirement means.”

At some point since last November, Koch had to explain to Carter why he wasn’t competing in 2018.

“He’s like, ‘Dad, are you retired?'” Koch says. “I was like, ‘No, buddy, I just lost my sponsor.'”

Koch is four months removed from his last start in Kaulig Racing’s No. 11 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series.

After two years racing full-time for the team, he was replaced by Ryan Truex, who brought sponsorship with him. Koch was left without a ride after making 213 starts in the Xfinity Series since 2009.

Koch has heard many of the same questions since November.

Are you done racing? Are you still trying to get sponsors? What are you doing?

“My answer is no, I’m not done racing,” Koch answers. “I can’t be done racing.”

At 32 and with 229 national NASCAR starts on his resume, Koch was left with two options when the 2017 season ended.

“Sit around and feel sorry for myself and read all the support and the tweets and let it (allow me) to think that an opportunity should come to me or go out and make something happen and have fun and utilize my resources and knowledge,” Koch says.

He decided he wasn’t going to pursue any ride this season. But Koch is not going anywhere.

In addition to a weekly appearance on Fox Sports 1’s “NASCAR Race Hub,” Koch wanted to try his hand as a driver mentor, helping young NASCAR drivers develop with the knowledge he’s accrued the last decade.

Koch jokes that his love of helping people may have been one of his “downfalls as a driver.”

“I helped other drivers,” Koch says. “If someone asked me what I was doing or about the race, I told them my honest opinion because I actually liked helping.”

Koch also observed a lack of people in similar roles in NASCAR.

“Every other sport has a coach or someone to lean on or someone on your side. Golfers, quarterbacks, everybody does. Except for NASCAR drivers,” Koch says. “Even Supercross racers have trainers and coaches and people making them better and better. But in our sport, it was just nonexistent, because there were no drivers that would retire and still want to be at the racetrack helping other drivers.”

Before committing to the idea, he went to former NASCAR driver Josh Wise for advice. Wise works with Chip Ganassi Racing helping their drivers.

“I did pick Josh’s brain a little bit on if he was happy doing it, if he missed being in a car and all that kind of stuff,” Koch says. “He still had the adrenaline rush, he loved what he was doing. … He saw results from the work he’s putting in. … You don’t want to do something and feel like there’s no results behind it and you don’t want to do something if you don’t think it’s going to be fun or rewarding.”

Through Chris Biby, a driver manager, Koch was connected with Matt Tifft, who joined Richard Childress Racing this season after a year with Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s also begun working with Truck Series driver Myatt Snider.

Koch and Tifft did not interact much last year, aside from greetings at driver introductions.

Their first real conversation came over a meal at Hickory Tavern in Huntersville, North Carolina.  Now they talk almost every day.

Koch didn’t officially begin his role helping out Tifft until after the season opener at Daytona.

“What I try to be for Matt Tifft is everything I’ve always wanted,” Koch says. “Confidence is key. It’s a big part of going fast, being confident in yourself. I believe that comes from hard work.

“I knew I had that feeling, and that’s something I implemented into Matt’s weekly routine, that when he shows up to the racetrack he knows he’s been working harder than every single person out there, and he’s more prepared than anyone out there. Then you have a little extra pep in your step when you’re walking in the garage.”

Koch says a “very small portion” of the work he does with his drivers is at the track. Most of his “two cents” comes between Monday and Friday.

On Sunday nights, he sets a schedule for Tifft and Snider, what to do with their workout program, race prep and what to work on in the simulator in addition to general notes for the race weekend.

Tifft says Koch is “very particular about every single thing” he’s doing.

“I set up specific workouts for him to do throughout the week and I tweaked his nutrition a little bit,” Koch says. “But he was already pretty disciplined with his nutrition. I set a checklist of things he needs to know every single week before he gets to the racetrack. Small details, even little things like garage flow. … When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

Through roughly four weeks of working with Tifft and Snider, Koch has found the same satisfaction that Wise has in his role with Ganassi.

“When this opportunity came across to work with Matt, I could still race,” Koch says. “You have that competition, the adrenaline because you feel like you’re invested in part of it and I could help them out. It kind of helped fulfill the desire I had for helping people and helping someone make the best of their opportunity. I know how difficult it is to get an opportunity in this sport. When someone has that opportunity, I love nothing more than to see them maximize it. That’s what keeps me excited.”

Working with the two young drivers also keeps Koch on his toes in the case an offer materializes from a team.

“It absolutely helps,” Koch says. “I have to stay in shape and constantly watch, read and study data and work as hard as I was, probably working harder now than I was when I was driving. Because I have the accountability of Matt Tifft and Myatt Snider. Those guys are starting to push me harder in the gym, too. I have to get stronger. You can’t have your athletes stronger than the coach. I got to step up my game.”

Koch isn’t done adding things to his work life.

He plans to launch a new business in May, which he works on in the afternoons following his morning workout.

Koch isn’t giving away any details on that business will entail.

“The reason I started it is back when I was racing, if I poured as much effort and passion and hard work into my own business and product that I did into everybody else’s I’d be in a much better position right now,” Koch says. “I’ve learned a lot, about business and marketing and how to create a successful company, especially being friends with Matt Kaulig and seeing Leaf Filter grow over the years, I came up with an idea that I know people need and use and want, and I’m going to supply that to people here very soon.”

In the meantime, with the Xfinity Series off the next two weekends and Koch not making the trip to Texas Motor Speedway, he will spend his weekends nurturing his son’s dirt bike career. Carter competed in his first race last weekend.

“He was begging for it,” Koch says of the dirt bike. “I wanted to get him in a go kart or something a little safer but he’s just about as hardheaded and stubborn as I am.”

A Driver’s Drive: Darrell Wallace Jr. aggressive and confident

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Returning to the site of his first Camping World Truck Series win provided a great opportunity for Darrell Wallace Jr. to reflect on his meteoric rise through the NASCAR ranks in the week’s edition of “A Driver’s Drive”.

Finishing second in the Daytona 500 put his name in the record book as the highest finishing African-American driver and raised expectations about Wallace’s potential at the Cup level.

Martinsville is going to raise another challenge to see if he can live up to that potential without stepping over the line. Wallace earned his first victory in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions on this track in the 2013 Kroger 200. He backed that up with another win in the same race the following year. Those victories add to his confidence and possibly his aggression on the bullring.

“Looking back on stats and what not, you’ll see that I’m one of the most aggressive guys coming up through the ranks,” Wallace said.

On Sunday, Wallace will need to temper that aggression if he wants to score another top-10 in Cup competition.

For more on what Wallace says, watch the video above.

Axalta, Hendrick Motorsports extend relationship though 2022

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Axalta and Hendrick Motorsports announced a four-year extension of their relationship through 2022, continuing a 26-year partnership.

Axalta, a supplier of liquid and powder coatings, will serve as a 25-race primary sponsor of Hendrick over the next two years. Axalta will sponsor Alex Bowman (15 races in 2018 and 12 races in 2019) and William Byron (10 races in 2018 and 13 races in 2019).

Schedules for the 2020-2022 seasons will be announced at a later date.

Hendrick’s deal with NAPA was recently extended through 2020.

Axalta, formerly known as DuPont, has been with Hendrick since November 1992 when it sponsored Jeff Gordon in his first Cup start at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Gordon went on to win four Cup titles with Axalta as his primary sponsor.

Last May, Axalta opened a 36,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Customer Experience Center on the HMS campus outside Charlotte, North Carolina, to enable customers to train and be part of a full racing experience.

“We are so proud of our partnership with Axalta,” said Rick Hendrick in a press release. “Their long-term commitment to our organization and our sport as a whole has been unbelievable. They are constantly innovating and investing to keep the program fresh, enhance the experience for their customers and ultimately drive value for their business. Projects like the Customer Experience Center on our campus are unprecedented and reinforce the strength of our relationship. We’ve worked together for more than a quarter of a century, and I believe it’s just the beginning.”