No big deal that Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing both haven’t won a Cup race yet?
Maybe, but consider this — the last time both teams had yet to win by the season’s fifth race was 1994. That’s before Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott was born, before Jeff Gordon had won his first championship and two years after Richard Petty’s final race.
While this season celebrates five different winners in the first five races, including Stewart-Haas Racing’s first Daytona 500 triumph and Richard Childress Racing’s first Cup win since Nov. 2013, it also notes what hasn’t been done with Hendrick and Gibbs failing to reach Victory Lane.
Of course, that likely will change Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Hendrick and Gibbs have combined to win 80 percent of the last 30 races (See Chart at right) at the historic half-mile track, dating back to 2002. Hendrick Motorsports has 16 wins during that time, including last fall with Jimmie Johnson.
Executives from both organizations told NBC Sports this week that they’re not fretting about their starts to the season.
“I don’t sense any extra pressure,’’ said Doug Duchardt, general manager at Hendrick Motorsports. “There’s no meeting saying we’ve got to win or anything like that.’’
Said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing: “I don’t put a timestamp on it, we’ve got to win by our fifth or sixth race. I feel like that we need to be competitiveweek in and week out and then we tweak from there. I know our guys are capable of winning.’’
Duchardt notes the speed Chase Elliott’s car has had this year as a sign of the potential for each Hendrick team. While questions have been raised about Jimmie Johnson’s start to the season, Duchardt sees the matter differently.
“The 48 team obviously hasn’t had the finishes that we wanted,’’ Duchardt said. “Other than this past weekend (21st at Auto Club Speedway), I feel like at Atlanta they had a top-five car. At Vegas, they did, kind of got behind in strategy there on that one second stage. In Phoenix, they were running top five and the way things ended we ended up (ninth). This weekend obviously was not what we wanted. I think up to this weekend, I thought they were, obviously not as strong as (Elliott), but were pretty good.’’
Duchardt said one area he’s looking for improvement is in qualifying, feeling that has hindered some of the teams in scoring stage points. Elliott has 63 stage points, while Johnson has 18, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12 and Kasey Kahne has yet to score a stage point this season.
“Overall I think the company, we’re good relative to the competition, but obviously we’re going to have to continue to work and make the next step as far as speed in the cars,’’ Duchardt said.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered this season having won 26 of the previous 67 races (38.8 percent), but its Toyota ally, Furniture Row Racing, has made it to Victory Lane first this season with Martin Truex Jr.
“Obviously, we didn’t start off as strong as we thought we were going to be,’’ Makar said. “I guess this package has hindered us more than we thought compared to other teams. We’re a little disappointed in that.
“We’ve had to go to work. Atlanta kind of gave us the first glimpse of it. We’ve improved on all of our races since then. I feel good about that. That’s a positive that we’ve been getting better week in and week out, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve gotten in contention to win a few of these races. I still feel like we’re still a little behind the eight-ball on the way our cars driver compared to the field.’’
Steve Letarte, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, joins Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key subjects in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.
Jimmie Johnson bristled last weekend about people questioning his performance this season and said: “Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean come on.’’ What do you make of Jimmie’s reaction?
Steve Letarte: I think it’s frustrating to him, apparently, to continue to have to answer that question. I think he had to answer that question last year as well and last year turned out OK. It’s going to be interesting to see the lack of stage performance, if that haunts the 48 and Jimmie Johnson more than last year because there was really no negative to not performing in the first half of the year. I think his performance in Miami last year, I took it as he thought it should have bought him a little bit of leeway early in this season, but I think it’s a fair question. I also think it’s a fair response. I would have concern if none of the Hendrick cars were running well but I think Chase Elliott is and I think Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus showed more patience last year than any year that they won a championship. I expect to see to see the same sort of run at the end of this year with the wildcard being how far behind can they afford to be on playoff points come September.
Nate Ryan: There are two ways to look at it: 1) Johnson has gotten more comfortable in his own skin and being blunt and outspoken comes more natural to him now than even after his third championship. He never will carry the swagger of The Intimidator, but he also has reached a point in his life where he feels worthy of a certain respect and isn’t shy about demanding that deference when he tires of familiar questioning; 2) But there also is probably a sliver of concern being masked about the worst start to a season in Johnson’s career. As he has said, the No. 48 Chevrolet has run well at times (aside from Fontana), and it’s too early to panic, but this isn’t how he wanted to begin his seventh title defense.
Dustin Long: Jimmie isn’t thrilled with how he’s finished this year and he shouldn’t be. A wrong strategy in one race, some pit road issues that need to be cleaned up and cars that are not the fastest in the Hendrick camp (that would be Chase Elliott) are enough to bother any competitor. Johnson is right to be a bit testy because of that and also because of such a question coming so early in the season. There’s still more than five months until the playoffs begin. Let’s see where he and his team are in September.
What would have been the preseason odds that Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing each would have wins before Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing?
Steve Letarte: It would have to be a field bet because those odds would not have been created in Las Vegas, they’re so far-fetched. The simple fact is that question alone is why I love auto racing. That’s why I love sports. How many golfers are guaranteed to win that collapse on the back nine? How many times did Dale Earnhardt Sr. have to fail in the closing laps of the Daytona 500 from circumstances outside of his control? Sports in general, and especially racing, creates these stages that you can’t make up. That wouldn’t have been a field bet in Las Vegas.
Nate Ryan: Very high. I think Ganassi had a shot at a win ahead of Hendrick or JGR, but getting a victory ahead of both would have been a 20-1 proposition. RCR seemed miles behind both of those powerhouses entering 2017.
Dustin Long: Astronomical. Credit Richard Childress Racing for gambling at Phoenix, but that’s something that the organization was more willing to do to snap a winless streak that dated back to late in the 2013 season. The Chip Ganassi Racing cars have been fast all season so it is not as surprising that they have won. Still, I don’t think anybody would have said that RCR and Ganassi would have won before both Gibbs and Hendrick this year.
Who is in need of a good result soon?
Steve Letarte: I know this sounds silly but I think the 41 (Kurt Busch) needs a good result off a restrictor-plate track. When I listen to Kurt Busch on the scanner, he doesn’t seem like a calm, calculated driver who has a win this year. I’m OK with poor performance because it’s going to happen because it’s a long season. But his emotion and lack of constructive feedback concerns me. It sounds like a driver that is in a year-long slump and has been struggling and he isn’t. He’s the Daytona 500 champion. I feel that what I feel the Daytona 500 should do to a race team hasn’t done to this 41 team. I don’t feel there’s any sort of air of confidence. I think they’re still distressed, and I think it’s because they’re getting outrun by both Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.
Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Back-to-back heavy impacts (and crashes in three of the first five races this year) surely have left the driver and team a little shook. He has run well in all five races, however, and he’s been a factor at Martinsville since joining Joe Gibbs Racing.
Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s wrecked three times in the first five races and hard the past two weeks. He just needs to finish without hitting a wall or another car. It’s too early in the season to be damaging so many cars and getting beat up.
Watch Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
Matt Kenseth wrecks out of Auto Club 400 on late restart
Matt Kenseth crashed out of the Auto Club 400 on a restart with 16 laps remaining in the race at Auto Club Speedway.
Kenseth had restarted fourth following a caution for an incident involving Gray Gaulding.
Kenseth was in the middle groove exiting Turn 2 when he was tapped from behind by Martin Truex Jr. Kenseth’s No. 20 Toyota slammed the inside SAFER barrier, shearing off part of the left front of the car. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was checked and released from the infield care center.
It is Kenseth’s third DNF in the first five races of the season and his second in as many races. He had four last season
Kenseth dropped five spots to 25th in the point standings.
Daniel Suarez leans on Carl Edwards for advice on and off the track
Daniel Suarez has been getting many tips behind the wheel from the man he replaced in the NASCAR Cup Series.
The rookie from Mexico recently got some tips from Carl Edwards for how to handle being in front of the camera.
Suarez, 25, is appearing in a commercial with Carl Edwards that will be shown during Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, the first of four in which the No. 19 Toyota will be sponsored by Subway.
“We have a good time in it,” Suarez told NBC Sports in a phone interview Wednesday. “I’m sure (Edwards) will like it because he’s very, very cool.
“He’s not racing right now anymore, but he still is a part of this group, so I think it was something very important, because he’s been super helpful in the last couple of years in my career. I was just really excited to see how much work it takes to do a national commercial of 10 to 15 seconds. It takes a lot of work, and it turned out super great.”
Edwards, of course, has been one of the best corporate pitchmen in NASCAR since entering the premier series in 2004. (It’s unclear whether Edwards maintains a personal services deal with Subway; NBC Sports was unable to confirm it with the company.)
But Edwards, 37, hasn’t disappeared, providing pointers to Suarez during the race weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and in a February test session at Phoenix Raceway. Suarez said he and Edwards talk weekly.
“Oh yeah, we keep in touch,” he said. “Actually, even he’s not racing full time, he’s still helping me in a lot of different areas. Not just in the race car, but out of the race car as well.
“We have to remember that there is a team that I’m racing with right now that he’s known since last year. He knows these guys very, very well, and everything he’s done for me. So yeah, I keep in communication with him, and he’s been helpful trying to make all the communication and chemistry a good deal better.”
“He’s accomplished so many good things in the sport,” Suarez said of Edwards. “He’s got some other things he wants to accomplish as well. And that’s something we don’t talk about a lot. But you never know. He loves racing. Who knows? Maybe he comes back one day to do a few races.”
If he does, Edwards could be in the position of racing his replacement, who has struggled throughout his first four races in Cup. Suarez notched a seventh place at Phoenix after placing 20th or worse in his first three events.
“These cars are just more difficult to drive, and the competition is just tougher,” he said. “When you are off in Xfinity, you can run 10-14th. When you are a little off in the Cup stuff, you are 35th, 36th. It’s pretty different. To learn how to communicate with my crew chief and build that chemistry with my new engineers, Dave Rogers … We’re still learning so many different things, for sure. We’re in the right path moving forward.”