Wood Brothers

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

1 Comment

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.’’

 and on Facebook

Milestones Cup drivers, teams could hit in 2018

Leave a comment

From career starts to victories, there are many milestones Cup drivers and teams will be shooting for when the season begins with the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. Here’s a look at some of those milestones within reach this year.

Jimmie Johnson is one win behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (84 each) for fourth on the all-time Cup wins list.

— With one win, Jimmie Johnson would have a Cup victory in 17 consecutive seasons. That would move him to second on the all-time list of consecutive seasons with at least a win, tying him with David Pearson. Richard Petty is the all-time leader with at least one victory in 18 consecutive seasons (1960-77).

Kevin Harvick is seven top-five finishes away from tying Bill Elliott for 20th on the all-time list with 175.

— The Wood Brothers are one victory away from 100 career Cup wins.

— Hendrick Motorsports needs one victory to extend its streak of consecutive seasons with at least one Cup win to 33 and that next points victory also will be the organization’s 250th.

Kyle Busch needs one pole this season to have one in 11 consecutive seasons. That would put him in a tie with Bobby Allison and Ryan Newman for eighth on the all-time list of consecutive seasons with a pole.

— If a driver scores their first Cup win this season, it would mark the third consecutive year there has been at least one first-time winner. That would be the longest such mark in a decade. Among those seeking their first career Cup victory: Chase Elliott, William Byron, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Michael McDowell, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Alex Bowman.

— Kyle Busch is 17 wins shy of 200 career victories across NASCAR’s top three national series. He has 43 Cup wins, 91 Xfinity wins and 49 Truck wins. He won 13 races last year (five Cup, five Xfinity and three Truck).

— Kevin Harvick is three wins shy of 100 career victories across NASCAR’s top three national series. He has 37 Cup wins, 46 Xfinity wins and 14 Truck wins. Last season, Harvick scored two Cup victories, zero in Xfinity (in six starts) and did not compete in any Truck races.

— With Matt Kenseth (650 career starts) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (631) not in Cup, Kurt Busch becomes the active driver with most starts at 612. If he starts every Cup points race this year, he’ll be at 648, putting him 23rd on the all-time list for most Cup starts.

— Ryan Newman is 16 starts away from making his 600th career start. Only 28 drivers in NASCAR history have made 600 or more career starts.

— Jimmie Johnson is 21 starts away from making his 600th career start.

— Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman each have made 576 consecutive Cup starts. They are tied for 10th on the all-time list of consecutive starts.

Paul Menard will make his 400th career Cup start in the Daytona 500.

David Ragan is two starts shy of making his 400th career Cup start. The Georgia native will do it at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

 and on Facebook

Friday 5: Questions about the upcoming Cup season

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
1 Comment

Many places often celebrate Friday at 5 where the weekend begins. Although there’s no NASCAR Cup action this weekend, fans can still enjoy Friday 5 with a (fun) look at the upcoming season with these five questions.

1. What is the new driver/crew chief combination that is most intriguing?

Among the new driver/crew chief combinations this year:

Billy Scott with Kurt Busch at Stewart-Haas Racing

John Klausmeier with Aric Almirola at SHR

Matt Borland with Ty Dillon at Germain Racing

Greg Erwin with Paul Menard at the Wood Brothers

Travis Mack with Kasey Kahne at Leavine Family Racing

Greg Ives with Alex Bowman at Hendrick Motorsports

Darian Grubb with William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports

The one that intrigues the most is the Grubb/Byron pairing. Grubb won a championship with Tony Stewart in 2011, led Denny Hamlin to the title race in Homestead in 2014, worked with Carl Edwards in 2015 and won the 2006 Daytona 500 with Jimmie Johnson while serving as interim crew chief with Chad Knaus suspended.

Grubb has never worked with a rookie.

Byron is more than a rookie. The 20-year-old is viewed by many to be the future of Hendrick Motorsports. Grubb will play a key role in molding Byron and that’s an important responsibility. How Byron handles the highs and lows of the season will rest with Grubb. This will be worth watching closely.

2. How will Fords compete with the other manufacturers this season?

Chevrolet brings out the Camaro ZL1 this season. Toyota won 16 races with the updated Toyota Camry last year. Ford will have the oldest model among the three.

Brad Keselowski raised issues about Toyota’s success last year and NASCAR not keeping the manufactures closer. He sounded a warning about the 2018 season moments after the 2017 season finished in Homestead

“When that (Toyota) car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there (were) two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there,” Keselowski said. “I don’t think anyone ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt like Formula 1, where you had one car that made it through the gates heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.

“As to what will happen for 2018, you know, I don’t know. I would assume that Chevrolet will be allowed to design a car the same way that Toyota was for this one, but Ford doesn’t have any current plans for that. If that’s the case, we’re going to take a drubbing next year, so we’ll have to see.”

That’s the challenge Fords could face this season. Ford won 10 races last year, but only two of the final 19 races last year. Will that trend continue this season?

3. There were three first-time Cup winners in 2017. Will that number be equaled this season?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon each scored their first career Cup victory last season.

Among the drivers seeking their first career Cup win this season: Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Ty Dillon and Darrell Wallace Jr. Those drivers represent Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Germain Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports.

It would seem a good bet that Elliott and at least one other driver on that list scores their first career Cup win this year. It’s possible there could be three first-time winners again.

4. For fun, who is your way-too-early final four picks at Homestead?

Let’s go with Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

5. For fun, in the way-too-early category, how many drivers who didn’t make the playoffs last year make it this year?

Let’s go with three. Thinking Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman.

 and on Facebook

Silly Season Scorecard: Holiday edition

Photo: Richard Petty Motorsports
Leave a comment

Richard Petty Motorsports’ announcement Friday that it will switch to Chevrolet and partner with Richard Childress Racing in 2018 will help make it a good holiday season for both organizations.

The move continued what has been a long and eventful Silly Season in Cup. And it’s not finished with still some rides remaining.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands about two months before cars are back on track at Daytona International Speedway.

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Ray Black Jr. joins Rick Ware Racing and will drive the No. 51 car (announcement made Nov. 22)

Aric Almirola joins Stewart-Haas Racing and will drive the No. 10 car (announcement made Nov. 8)

Darrell Wallace Jr. joins Richard Petty Motorsports and will drive the No. 43 car (announcement made Oct. 25)

Jeffrey Earnhardt returns to the No. 33 car at Circle Sport Racing (announcement made Oct. 15)

Kasey Kahne joins Leavine Family Racing and will drive the No. 95 car. (announcement made Sept. 19)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Matt DiBenedetto remains with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

William Byron will drive the No. 24 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— Nos. 23 & 83: BK Racing has not announced plans for its cars for 2018.

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing has not announced plans for this car for 2018.

— No. 34: Front Row Motorsports informed Landon Cassill on Oct. 9 that he would not be returning to the team next season. The team has not announced its driver lineup for next season. 

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch said Nov. 29, a day before the Cup Awards in Las Vegas, that he is not too worried about his situation and expects to be with the team. “I think that my best chance to win races and to win championships is to be with Stewart-Haas Racing,’’ he said.

— No. 77: Furniture Row Racing sold the charter to this team. This car will not compete in 2018.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. He does not have plans for 2018.

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick announced Nov. 17 at Homestead that she plans to drive only the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500 next year before retiring. She has not completed a deal to run either race so far. 

Michael McDowellWill not return to Leavine Family Racing with Kasey Kahne joining the team next season. Has not announced 2018 plans.

Landon CassillSearching for a ride after being informed he will not be back at Front Row Motorsports. He said Oct. 10 that he did not have sponsorship to bring with him at the time.

 and on Facebook

NASCAR America: Ryan Blaney turns focus to Team Penske for 2018

Leave a comment

As NASCAR closes out its 2017 season, the next thing for Ryan Blaney will be to focus on 2018 and joining Team Penske.

That organization will expand to add Blaney, who moves over from the Wood Brothers. Blaney will drive the No. 12.

“There’s a lot of personnel that is going to be the same, so that is going to be really nice,” Blaney told NBCSN’s Marty Snider in Las Vegas. “We have a few new members who are going to come on, just trying to get everybody knowing each other and working well together, I think, is the biggest thing.”

Blaney leaves behind a Wood Brothers team that he helped lead to the playoffs and scored his first – and the organization’s 99th career win – this season.

“It was a fun year, for sure,” Blaney said. “To be able to win for the Wood Brothers was a big privilege to be a part of the folks that have won for them. That will be something that I’ll always remember. It was a great year. We wish we could have fought for a championship at Homestead, but I was really proud of the effort we put forth this year.”

See what else Blaney had to say in the video above.