Hendrick Motorsports faces challenge with multiple sponsor deals ending after 2018 season

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Plenty of time remains, but Hendrick Motorsports faces a pivotal year with several primary sponsorship deals ending after the 2018 season.

Thursday’s announcement that Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 next year after Dale Earnhardt Jr. steps away also included the nugget that Nationwide will extend its deal one year through the 2018 season.

That means that Hendrick Motorsports will have the following major primary sponsorships ending after next season: Lowe’s (Jimmie Johnson), Nationwide (Alex Bowman), Axalta (Bowman) and NAPA (Chase Elliott).

Those companies serve as a primary sponsor for a combined 94 points races next season:

Lowe’s will do 36 races, sharing some with vendors, on Johnson’s car.

NAPA will do 24 races on Elliott’s car.

Nationwide will do 19 races on Bowman’s car.

Axalta will increase its total by two to 15 on Bowman’s car next season.

And there’s more.

SunEnergy1’s deal of four races a year on Elliott’s car expires after the 2018 season.

Mountain Dew’s deal expires after the 2018 season and includes sponsorship of the cars of Earnhardt/Bowman, Kasey Kahne and Elliott, representing eight races total.

Rarely does an organization have so many significant sponsor deals end at the same time.

And there’s the fact that Hendrick Motorsports has yet to announce replacements on Kasey Kahne’s car with Farmer’s Bank Insurance not returning when its deal expires after this season, and Great Clips ending its agreement after this year. Those companies are scheduled to serve as the primary sponsor for 22 races this year.

Despite the challenges Hendrick Motorsports seems to be facing, it helps that the organization has done well in retaining sponsors — Axalta has been with the company since 1992 and Lowe’s since 2001 — but there are no guarantees. Lowe’s extension did not match the three-year extension Johnson signed. In 2015, both Johnson and Lowe’s signed two-year extensions. Before that deal, Johnson signed a five-year extension and Lowe’s signed a three-year deal, following with a two-year extension to later match Johnson’s contract length.

Nationwide and NAPA don’t have as long a history with Hendrick Motorsports as Axalta and Lowe’s.

Nationwide sponsored what is now the Xfinity Series from 2008-14 before becoming the primary sponsor of Earnhardt’s No. 88 car in 2015.

NAPA, which severed ties with Michael Waltrip Racing for its involvement in a team order scandal at Richmond in 2013, partnered with Elliott in 2014 when he was at JR Motorsports and followed him to Cup at Hendrick Motorsports.

With 16 months before the 2018 season ends, there’s plenty of time for Hendrick Motorsports to extend deals with each company or find others. Still, there is much work ahead. The pressure will be on to get those deals done in a timely manner.

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NASCAR’s cycling craze grows but not every driver ready to wear spandex

Photo: Jimmie Johnson
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Clint Bowyer laughs at the latest craze in the NASCAR Cup garage.

Cycling.

“It’s just a fad,’’ Bowyer told NBC Sports. “It’s just like anything else, I mean, it really is. It’s so funny.

“I go to the shop and I see all these bikes hanging on the bike rack and we’re talking three, four, five thousand dollar bikes sitting there that you know damn well, they’re not going to be riding for long. Nobody enjoys that. So it’s a fad.

“It’s going to go away, and that’s when you’ll be able to pick up a good deal on a really nice bike and go through the fad yourself. But there’s no way in hell I would ever let anyone see me in that spandex.’’

That’s what Dale Earnhardt Jr. thought. He hitched a ride in a vehicle through the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield earlier this season before getting on his bike outside the track so no one would see him in spandex.

Now, Earnhardt enjoys cycling, promotes it and doesn’t mind being seen in spandex.

“I didn’t like working out at a gym, running on a treadmill, all that stuff’s real boring,’’ Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Couldn’t really find anything that I liked to do. And so I picked up cycling. It’s a lot of fun.

“We go out and ride at all the stops on the NASCAR circuit, and we see part of the country that we … never take the time to see. It’s really beautiful. And it doesn’t feel like working out. It doesn’t feel like an exercise. We’re just cruising along on our bikes.

“We’ll ride for an hour-and-a-half or two hours, it goes by pretty quick. There’s never any moment in the experience where I’m going, ‘Man, how much longer do we got?’ And you’ll ride 20 to 30 miles, get off the bike, you’ll burn 800-1000 calories in a two-hour period, and you’ve had fun. And you feel great!’’

Earnhardt is among many drivers in the Cup garage cycling. They include Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne.

Road cycling has evolved in the sport. Drivers and crew members previously went mountain biking to get their exercise.

“We used to meet on Tuesday afternoons all the time and ride and you got to meet a lot of new people, and then it kind of expanded (from) there to riding road bikes,’’ Kenseth said of he and crew chief Jason Ratcliff.

“It’s a good way to get out of the motorhome on the weekends and see a lot of the different areas around the race track that I never really explored before and keeps you in great shape.’’

While they’re not on the level of Tour de France riders (NBCSN’s coverage continues at 6 a.m. Wednesday with Stage 17), it’s still about being in shape in the car. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 90s this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The high for Sunday’s race (3 p.m., NBC) is expected to be 89 degrees, making it among the warmest temperatures for a race this season.

Cycling, along with the rest of his workouts, helps Johnson with handling such conditions and more.

“I’ve learned a lot of great things from a nutrition and hydration standpoint to take to the car, and some probably know I’m pretty sensitive to hydration,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports. “I’ve had some issues over the years, and I’m thankful that I have this knowledge because I think I would have many more episodes, but truthfully there is so much more from a mental aspect. Learning to fight for something, the discipline it takes to stay fit at a high level.

“It’s a very stressful job and to get on the bike and be with my friends and socialize and stay fit has been good on a lot of levels. Not just the obvious physical ones.’’

Some drivers have taken their bike riding further. Johnson, Kenseth and McMurray rode in a 102.7-mile bike race in May from South Carolina to Mt. Mitchell, which at 6,684 feet is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, in Western North Carolina. McMurray finished in 5 hours, 58 minutes. Johnson rode with former Tour de France racer George Hincappie and both finished at 6:01. Kenseth completed the ride in 6:32.

Still, not everyone is sold on cycling, like Bowyer and Ryan Newman.

“I don’t quite get those guys and the amount of money they spend on whatever it is, a 32-ounce bicycle, when all they’ve got to do is just go on Craigslist and get a Schwinn or something like that and pedal half the distance and twice as hard and get better workouts,’’ Newman said.

“I offered back at Talladega weekend to get a Moped and cut the air for Kenseth and those guys just to kind of give them a little draft, some drafting partners, you know? But, they haven’t taken me up on it. So, I’ve just been enjoying fishing and a little bit of the outdoors. My workouts consist more of doing physical activities and sweating than paying money for a bicycle just to coast downhill.’’

Extra miles @monstermile with @jimmiejohnson @dalejr @chaseelliott24

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Cup Playoff Grid: Denny Hamlin becomes 11th driver to qualify for Cup postseason

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After repeat winners at Daytona and Kentucky, Denny Hamlin became the latest driver to win his way into the Cup Series playoffs Sunday at New Hampshire.

Hamlin, with his first victory of the season, is the 11th driver to clinch a spot in the 16-car field for the playoffs.

He would be the 12th if not for Joey Logano‘s Richmond win being encumbered due to an inspection failure.

If the postseason began this weekend, the drivers getting into the 16-car field on points would be Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.

With his win, Hamlin has seven playoff points. That puts him eighth on the playoff grid among those who have clenched a playoff spot. He is ahead of Kurt Busch (five playoff points), Ryan Newman (five) and Austin Dillon (five).

In the graphic below, drivers in green are in the playoffs on wins. Drivers in yellow would be in on points and drivers in orange would not make the playoffs.

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Kyle Busch fastest in final Cup practice at New Hampshire

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Kyle Busch was fastest in the final Cup Series practice Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Busch, who will start seventh in Sunday’s Overton’s 301, posted the top speed of 130.950 mph around the track. He recorded 48 laps in the session.

The top five was filled out by pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. (130.568), Denny Hamlin (130.568), Kyle Larson (130.514) and Chase Elliott (130.474).

Larson was in the top five despite having to sit out the first 30 minutes of the session due to a practice hold for an inspection failure last week at Kentucky.

“I didn’t think we were very good,” Larson told NBCSN. “Long-run stuff I’m really, really bad. Need to get better at that. Ge really loose in tight in the middle. As the (PJ1) is wearing off I’m getting worse and worse. Gotta work on that.”

Brad Keselowksi, who was 12th fastest, recorded the most laps in the session with 55.

Truex ended the session with the best 10-lap average at 130.094 mph. He was followed by Ryan Blaney (129.855), Elliott (129.809), Busch (129.778) and Hamlin (129.500).

Click here for the full practice report.

Martin Truex Jr. leads second Cup practice at New Hampshire

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Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. topped the speed chart in the second NASCAR Cup Series practice at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the Overton’s 301.

Truex posted a speed of 131.338 mph in 35 laps around the track.

Filling out the top five were Kyle Larson (131.333), Jimmie Johnson (131.184), Chase Elliott (131.162) and Brad Keselowski (131.071).

Larson posted the best 10-lap average at 130.624 mph and was followed by Kyle Busch (130.372), Elliott (130.045), Clint Bowyer (130.012) and Truex (129.786).

Johnson recorded the most laps in the session with 60.

Click here for the full practice report.