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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Front Row Motorsports adds Michael McDowell, expands technical alliance with Roush Fenway

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Front Row Motorsports will field entries for David Ragan and Michael McDowell in 2018 while expanding its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, the team announced Thursday.

McDowell joins the Bob Jenkins-owned team after four years of driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing before being replaced by Kasey Kahne.

The native of Phoenix, Arizona, replaces Landon Cassill as Ragan’s teammate.

McDowell, 32, has 249 Cup starts since 2008, but only two full-time seasons under his belt. He made one start for Front Row at Watkins Glen in 2013.

“Since I first drove for Bob at Watkins Glen, we’ve kept in touch and have felt like there might be an opportunity to work together again, and the timing worked out perfectly,” McDowell said in a press release. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a teammate, so I’m really looking forward to working with David, whom I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years. As a team now, we go into the season knowing we have five or six races that put us in position to get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs.”

Ragan returns to Front Row for his fifth season with the team. Ragan earned the organization its first Cup victory in 2013 at Talladega. Ragan has two wins, 15 top fives and 39 top-10 finishes in his Cup career.

“Bob Jenkins and I have developed a good relationship over the years, both professionally and personally,” Ragan said in a press release. “I believe in this team and am proud to have been part of its growth and its successes. I’m excited that Bob and Ford have agreed to take the program to the next level, and I’m happy I’ll be here to help the team continue to grow.”

Crew chief assignments have not been finalized. FRM will announce sponsor partners and driver car numbers at a later date.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.

Make donation to Martinsville toy drive to take laps around track

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Have you ever dreamed of making a lap around the oldest track in NASCAR?

Today and tomorrow, Martinsville Speedway is making that dream come true.

With a toy or monetary donation for the Grace Network of Martinsville and Henry County, you can drive your own car around the half-mile track in Martinsville, Virginia.

A $10 donation gets you five laps and $20 gets you 10 laps.

The laps are being held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. ET today and Friday.