Rick Hendrick

The ‘little hints’ that helped put Chase Elliott in the No. 9 this season

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – The biggest number swap of the 2018 season might have started with a few well-timed emojis.

Those were the subtle nudges that Chase Elliott sent via text messages to Rick Hendrick, who said he picked up on those “little hints” in deciding to give the second-generation star the No. 9 that his father, Bill, made famous in a Hall of Fame career.

Elliott drove the past two seasons in the No. 24 Chevrolet. That now belongs to rookie teammate William Bryon, who also inadvertently played a role in the switch.

“I’d always kind of joked with (Hendrick),” Elliott told NBC Sports on the eve of Sunday’s Daytona 500. “William running the No. 9 in Xfinity (last season), he obviously was winning a lot and doing a lot of great things. So I’d always offer up a good text of, ‘That 9 looks good on the track!’ with a winky face. I never expected anything to ever really come of it, but I think he knew that was always my favorite number and I guess he was listening because it turned out good.”

In a recent video posted by Hendrick Motorsports, the team owner explained he had heard Elliott – and the pleas from his swelling fan base (several stars have predicted Elliott will succeed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as Most Popular Driver this season). It still wasn’t an easy decision for Hendrick, who had to mothball the No. 5 that carried his organization to its first victory on April 29, 1984.

“It was tough for me to give up the 5 car,” Hendrick said. “But the world changes. And I know what that meant to Chase, and I know what it meant to Bill Elliott and his family. And I know what it means to the sport.

“You have to look at things beyond what’s in these walls. You have to look at what’s good for NASCAR, and Chase and the 9 car is good for NASCAR. There are a tremendous amount of grassroots fans that pull for Bill Elliott and the 9. But, Chase, I knew from the very beginning, he would drop these little hints. So if it means that much to him, it means that much to the sport and the fans, then I’m all in. I’m excited about the 9, and I’m wanting for that first win.”

Elliott still his seeking his first official points victory in NASCAR’s premier series, but he took the No. 9 to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway in the second of two qualifying races Thursday.

“For me, it’s kind of home, and it’s a number I have a lot of history, and obviously my dad has a lot of history with, but for me, more than anything, it’s where I belong,” he said. “I grew up racing that number. That’s the number I ran that got me to where I am today. So to be able to have that number at the highest level of your sport is pretty special.”

After ‘rough year,’ Rick Hendrick seeks to change fortunes with new approach

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DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Even with a Cup championship two years ago, it was evident that Hendrick Motorsports’ performance was slipping.

Victories came less frequently. Then last year, stage wins were rare and other teams led more laps.

“None of us were happy about last year,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said. “It was a rough year, when you go to the race track and you just don’t think you can win. You’re average, and you’re just not leading laps. We didn’t lead laps, and that’s not us.’’

The question was what could be done to return the sport’s winningest organization in the past quarter century to its dominant ways.

The answer was to change the culture.

A four-car operation, Hendrick Motorsports had morphed into two two-car entities. It made it easier for the teams to slip into that direction working in separate buildings. The literal walls helped create virtual barriers for the organization.

“It’s all about information sharing these days,’’ said Jeff Gordon, who operates at Hendrick in an executive-level position. “You’d be surprised how that gap can be created even when one shop is 60 to 70 yards away from the next shop and now that’s not the case. We’ll see if it works the way that they hope that it will, but I think it’s definitely going to improve.’’

The struggles were evident last year. Hendrick Motorsports’ four victories — three by Jimmie Johnson and one by Kasey Kahne — were its fewest since 2000.

Last year also continued a decline in victories for Hendrick. The organization won 13 races in 2014, nine in 2015, five in 2016 and four last year.

Hendrick’s nine wins the past two seasons tied for fourth among Cup teams. Joe Gibbs Racing had 20 victories during the same time.

Such struggles were reinforced at the banquet in Las Vegas.

“I left there pissed off,’’ Johnson said. “That sucked. I knew after we got eliminated from the Round of 8, I knew our championship hopes were closed. To relive the highlight reels, all of that, it’s like, ‘Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back and be that guy.’ ’’

For Johnson to again be that guy and Hendrick Motorsports to again be unquestionably the sport’s elite team, Hendrick had to make changes.

That meant the teams working closer together, restructuring upper management and changes to the driver lineup.

Johnson, 42, is the only one among Hendrick’s four drivers this season who has won in Cup. He’s also old enough to be the father of his three teammates — 24-year-old Daytona 500 pole-sitter Alex Bowman, 22-year-old Chase Elliott and 20-year-old rookie William Byron.

They’re leaning on him but Johnson admits they could show him some things as well.

I think it’s going to be important for me to understand their language, how they describe things, then understanding how to put that into the way I describe a car, the sensations I’m looking for,’’ the seven-time champion said.Their effort level is going to be really high. We might get some inconsistent feedback getting started until they can dial in at 100 percent and identify with that. But I’m excited for a fresh perspective.’’

That’s the key for the organization in all areas — a fresh perspective.

After shuffling duties for some executives last year, Hendrick needed to change how his race team operated.

“We want to live together, we want to be in one area, we want to have the best guys setting up the plate, building all the cars the same, working in the wind tunnel and sharing,’’ Hendrick said.

“I’m excited about it. I think when you see the guys in the garage, they’re working together. They’re all working on the cars together. And so it’s kind of tearing down the walls of one team versus the other team. So you guys won’t have to ask me, why is the 48 car getting all the good stuff and the 9 car is not, and the sponsors won’t, either, because they’re all the same.’’

But why did it get this way? The notion of an organization operating as one is not new. Toyota turned it into a championship effort last year with Furniture Row Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing working as one in many areas. Team Penske and Wood Brothers also used that model, helping the Wood Brothers win a race last  year for the first time since 2011.

Former Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham understands the challenge his boss faced in not making a change earlier.

“Anytime you go into a cultural that has the legacy of winning that they do, it’s very hard to change that culture,’’ Evernham said. “Changing cultures is one of the hardest things you’re going to do.

“When you look at the handwriting on the wall, as the money shrinks in this sport, the amount of shared resources has to increase. Rick Hendrick obviously is a smart businessman. He sees that. I think it’s something that he’s wanted to do for a while and met some resistance here and there.’’

Now is the time to see if it works.

“In all of my years in this sport and my company, we have never worked this close together, and it’s something I’ve been wanting to see,’’ Hendrick said. “So the proof is going to be when we get down to the playoffs. There’s some awful good teams in that garage area. There’s some awful good cars that are not going to be in the playoffs. But I think we’re just going to get better and stronger.’’

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Riddles + drag racing the owner = fun for Daytona 500 pole-winning team

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In what could be a made-for-social media special, car owner Rick Hendrick says he and Daytona 500 pole winner Alex Bowman will drag race corvettes at some point with the winner getting the other’s car.

“One of us is going to lose a Corvette,’’ Hendrick said Sunday after Bowman won the pole in the No. 88 car.

“I don’t know that I signed up for that,’’ Bowman said.

“Yes you did,’’ crew chief Greg Ives told his driver.

“I thought it was just a grudge match,’’ Bowman said.

“No, for pinks he said,’’ Ives said.

“I didn’t throw the pinks thing out there,’’ Bowman said to Hendrick. “I’m still going to drag you down the race track.’’

Consider this race Hendrick’s way of having fun with his new driver, who takes over the ride Dale Earnhardt Jr. had.

“Alex and I have a lot of fun,’’ Hendrick said.

MORE: Wait is over for Alex Bowman to take over No. 88 car 

It’s easy to have fun with his driver is fast. Bowman’s pole gave Hendrick Motorsports its fourth consecutive Daytona 500 pole, following Jeff Gordon in 2015 and Chase Elliott in 2016-17.

Bowman’s pole only adds to his nickname “Bowman the Showman’’ — a name that he hasn’t been a fan of because of his low-key style but is grudgingly accepting.

However, he has a nickname for Ives. Bowman calls his crew chief “The Riddler’’ for the riddles or code Ives speaks in on the radio.

Ives is fine with it handle if he can keep other teams guessing what his strategy is during a race.

“A lot of it is just my nature of trying to be secretive and not let everybody see my hand a little bit,’’ Ives said. “Sometimes it helps us. I know it frustrated Dale a lot, and Alex, he gets to listen to that a lot now. 

“But I’m going to make him a riddle card for him to put on the dash so he kind of understands some of the riddles I’m going to go through. But a lot of it is just trying not to show your hand and get your driver to maybe understand what you’re saying.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but he should have got that riddle right after qualifying and know that I probably wouldn’t have come on the radio if he didn’t have the pole.’’

Bowman has another idea for his crew chief.

“We’re going to make him get a Riddler costume, too,’’ Bowman said. “He just doesn’t know it yet.’’

“No,” Ives said, “that’s not going to happen.’’

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Friday 5: Questions about size of future Hall of Fame classes

Photo by Lance King/Getty Images
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After NASCAR celebrates the ninth Hall of Fame class tonight (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN), questions may soon arise about how many inductees should be honored annually.

NASCAR inducts five people each year. When NASCAR announced eligibility changes in 2013, a former series executive said that the sanctioning body would “give strong consideration” to if five people should be inducted each year and if there should be a veteran’s committee “after the 10th class is seated.’’

The 10th class — which Jeff Gordon will be eligible for and expected to headline— will be selected later this year and honored in 2019. That gives NASCAR a year to determine what changes to make if officials follow the schedule mentioned in 2013. NASCAR has discussed different scenarios as part of its examination of the Hall of Fame.

Among the questions NASCAR could face is should no more than three people be inducted a year? Should only nominees who receive a specific percentage of the vote be inducted? Should other methods be considered in determining who enters the Hall? 

Only one of the last five classes had all five inductees selected on at least 50 percent of the ballots. Five people in the last three classes each received less than 50 percent of the vote.

The challenge is that if NASCAR reduced the number of people inducted after the Class of 2019, it could create a logjam in the coming years.

Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (provided Edwards does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2020.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth (provided Kenseth does not return to run a significant number of races) would be eligible for the Class of 2021.

Stewart would appear to be a lock for his year and it seems likely Earnhardt would make it as well his first year.

If the Hall of Fame classes were cut to three a year, and Stewart, Earnhardt and Kenseth each were selected in those two years, that would leave three spots during that time for others.

The nominees for this year’s class included former champions Bobby Labonte and Alan Kulwicki, crew chief Harry Hyde (56 wins, 88 poles) and Waddell Wilson (22 wins, 32 poles), car owners Roger Penske, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs and Cup drivers Buddy Baker, Davey Allison and Ricky Rudd.

A 2019 Class that might feature Jeff Gordon, Harry Hyde, Buddy Baker and two others would still leave some worthy candidates who might not make it for a couple of years if the number of inductees is reduced.

Of course, there are those who haven’t been nominated that some would suggest should be, including Smokey Yunick, Humpy Wheeler, Buddy Parrott, Kirk Shelmerdine, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant and Tim Richmond. That could further jumble who makes it if the number of inductees is reduced.

Those are just some of the issues NASCAR could face as it examines if any changes need to be made.

2. Hall of Fame Classes and vote totals

Note: NASCAR did not release vote totals for the inaugural class (2010 with Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr., and Bill France Jr.). Below are the other classes with the percent of ballots each inductee was on:

2018 Class

Robert Yates (94 percent)

Red Byron (74 percent)

Ray Evernham (52 percent)

Ken Squier (40 percent)

Ron Hornaday Jr. (38 percent)

2017 Class

Benny Parsons (85 percent)

Rick Hendrick (62 percent)

Mark Martin (57 percent)

Raymond Parks (53 percent)

Richard Childress (43 percent)

2016 Class

Bruton Smith (68 percent)

Terry Labonte (61 percent)

Curtis Turner (60 percent)

Jerry Cook (47 percent)

Bobby Isaac (44 percent)

2015 Class

Bill Elliott (87 percent)

Wendell Scott (58 percent)

Joe Weatherly (53 percent)

Rex White (43 percent)

Fred Lorenzen (30 percent)

2014 Class

Tim Flock (76 percent)

Maurice Petty (67 percent)

Dale Jarrett (56 percent)

Jack Ingram (53 percent)

Fireball Roberts (51 percent)

2013 Class

Herb Thomas (57 percent)

Leonard Wood (57 percent)

Rusty Wallace (52 percent)

Cotten Owens (50 percent)

Buck Baker (39 percent)

2012 Class

Cale Yarborough (85 percent)

Darrell Waltrip (82 percent)

Dale Inman (78 percent)

Richie Evans (50 percent)

Glen Wood (44 percent)

2011 Class

David Pearson (94 percent)

Bobby Allison (62 percent)

Lee Petty (62 percent)

Ned Jarrett (58 percent)

Bud Moore (45 percent)

3. Charter Switcheroo

Five charters have changed hands since last season. One will be with its third different team in the three years of the charter system.

In 2016, Premium Motorsports leased its charter to HScott Motorsports so the No. 46 team of Michael Annett could use it.

The charter was returned after that season, and Premium Motorsports sold the charter to Furniture Row Racing for the No. 77 car of Erik Jones for 2017.

With Jones moving to Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing not finding enough sponsorship to continue the team, the charter was sold to JTG Daugherty for the No. 37 team of Chris Buescher for this season. (The No. 37 team had leased a charter from Roush Fenway Racing last year).

So that will make the third different team the charter, which originally belonged to Premium Motorsports, has been with since the system was created.

4. Dodge and NASCAR?

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne excited fans when he said in Dec. 2016 about Dodge that “it is possible we can come back to NASCAR.’’

One report last year stated that Dodge decided not to return to NASCAR, and another countered that report.

While questions remain on if Dodge will return to NASCAR, Marchionne announced this week at the Detroit Auto Show that he’ll step down next year, and that Fiat Chrysler will release a business plan in June that will go through 2022. The company will announce a successor to Marchionne sometime after that.

Marchionne said, according to The Associated Press, that the U.S. tax cuts passed in December are worth $1 billion annually to Fiat Chrysler.

A Wall Street Journal story this week stated that Fiat Chrysler makes most of its profit from its Jeep and Ram brands, writing that those brands “have been on a roll as U.S. buyers shift to these kinds of light trucks and away from sedans, which is a segment the company has largely abandoned.’’

5. NMPA Hall of Fame

The National Motorsports Hall of Fame will induct four people into its Hall of Fame on Sunday night. Those four will be drivers Terry Labonte and Donnie Allison and crew chiefs Jake Elder and Buddy Parrott.

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A look back at the 2017 season through pictures

Photo: Dustin Long
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After each season, I go back and look at the photos I’ve taken and reflect upon what was. On this first weekend of the offseason, here’s a few photos from this past season to enjoy and ponder.

The year began with the shocking news that Carl Edwards would not compete in 2017. Not everyone was convinced that Edwards would go the entire season without getting back into a car. He did just that. Edwards, recently honored for the sportsmanship he displayed in the 2016 season finale in Miami, talked about racing, his life and what might be next.

 

Ryan Blaney finds a few moments to fuel up before the Monster Energy All-Star Race in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway, while hanging with Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott.

 

As I was going through my phone, one person in this picture stood out to me from the drivers meeting at New Hampshire in September during the playoffs. Hint: Look for Kyle Busch in a red shirt. When I was going through pictures he instantly popped out at me in this picture.

 

My favorite picture of the year. Matt Kenseth walking with one his daughters on pit road before the playoff race at Dover in September. When we will see Kenseth next?

 

NASCAR experimented with two-day on-track schedules (series officials called those enhanced weekends) that also included fun activities for fans and drivers. In temperatures above 90 degrees at Indianapolis, Kevin Harvick (left), Chase Elliott (center) and Corey LaJoie (right) all used a child’s jump rope to see who was best. LaJoie excelled. I like this photo for the look on Elliott’s face as he watches LaJoie.

 

While waiting for their cars to pass inspection at Texas in November, this picture almost could be the start of a joke. A Ford driver (Joey Logano), and a Chevrolet driver (Kasey Kahne) watch qualifying in a Toyota (Martin Truex Jr.) driver’s pit stall …

Typical Talladega. Crew members stand around Danica Patrick‘s wrecked car in the spring race. She was eliminated in an 18-car crash. A total of 38 cars – more than the number of chartered teams – were eliminated by accidents or for being parked related to accident damage in the two Talladega Cup races this year.

 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick embrace after Earnhardt climbed from his car at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his final Cup race. Nothing else needs to be said.

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