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‘When it rains, it pours’: Hendrick Motorsports working through a turbulent season

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INDIANAPOLIS – The team hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in three consecutive Sprint Cup races (for the first time in nearly 16 years). One of its star drivers will miss the second of at least three straight races with a possible concussion. And none of its four Chevrolets will start in the top 10 in Sunday’s Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The last time that happened was 2001 … when Hendrick Motorsports won the Brickyard 400 with Jeff Gordon (who started 27th).

If there’s a good omen or a silver lining – and the most successful team in NASCAR history could use either lately – that might be as good as any for Rick Hendrick, who has endured his share of ups and downs in 32 years of team ownership.

“It seems like when it rains, it pours,” he said Friday. “I’ve been doing this long enough that you can’t stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we’ve made a lot of improvements. I think we’ll see some, hopefully, this weekend. But you never like having a curveball.”

The curveball at Indy is the absence of Earnhardt, who has been sidelined since last week with concussion-like symptoms. His No. 88 Chevrolet will be driven at Indy and next week at Pocono Raceway by Gordon, who temporarily has ended an eight-month retirement.

But the driver swap is only the latest of many worries recently for Hendrick, which has slipped to second in class this season among Chevrolet teams behind Stewart-Haas Racing, has a shop brimming with wrecked cars (“Our place looks like a salvage yard,” Hendrick jokes) and has been unusually error-prone over the summer.

That’s the bad news.

The encouraging news is that everybody just stepped up and is working harder,” Hendrick said. “We’re determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It’s kind of our ‘refuse to lose’ belief. But we didn’t need this, for sure.”

Into the breach steps the man who once made “Refuse to Lose” a motto synonymous with winning championships.

Though Gordon has been shaking off the rust this weekend, the four-time series champion is a record five-time winner at the Brickyard who could help troubleshoot where Hendrick’s Chevrolets are missing. The team’s top Indy qualifier Saturday was Jimmie Johnson, whose 13th starting position marked the third time this season that the team failed to advance a car to the final round of qualifying.

“The sharpness has just been off of the Hendrick cars,” NBCSN analyst Ray Evernham, who won three titles as Gordon’s crew chief, said on NASCAR America this past week. “It’ll be good to get Jeff back in one of the cars and give some of his input to that, to the engineering staff as well.”

Johnson said a “fresh set of eyes” might help in evaluating the strength of Hendrick’s cars and engines, especially with Gordon’s experience in the Fox Sports booth in the first 16 races.

“Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle,” Johnson said. “I know he’s formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure.”

The Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row Racing and the Fords of Team Penske have been the standard bearers since Johnson’s March 20 victory at Auto Club Speedway, combining to win 11 of the past 13 races.

“For sure, we’ve been chasing them for a while,” Johnson said Sunday in New Hampshire after finishing 12th. “We brought some new ideas here and thought that we closed the gap. But we got a whole new fleet of cars we’re rolling out, and a lot of stuff is starting to come out of the production line right now. We definitely feel like we’re behind trying to catch up.”

Is there time to catch up before the playoffs begin in seven races?

“You never know,” he said. “I wish this was two to three months ago even yet because it just takes a while to get stuff going. A win can turn things around and get momentum moving in the right direction.

“And then the Chase is so different the way it is now. There’s still time, but we need to get moving.”

The best measuring stick for its improvement might be SHR, which will move to Ford next year after getting chassis and engines since well before Tony Stewart joined the team as a co-owner in 2009.

Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick each have won to qualify for the playoffs while Hendrick’s only winner this year is Johnson.

While the impending departure of SHR’s four cars will leave a multimillion-dollar void in Hendrick’s budget to be filled through new customers, the move already might be having a competitive impact.

The teams aren’t sharing the same setup data as under a previously stronger technical alliance (and with SHR already running some of its new chassis, it wouldn’t be helpful anyway). The lessened cooperation might be hurting both teams, but it seems to be having a more negative impact on Hendrick.

“Eight teams are better than four every day,” said Rodney Childers, the SHR crew chief for Harvick. “A lot of times you’re not going to use everything that you get from each other, but at least you can glance over and say, ‘Well these guys have this air pressure, and these guys have this setup, and these guys learn this at the wind tunnel,’ and both teams fed off each other for so many years.

“When you split that apart, it’s a huge loss for all of us. Not only them but for us. (Hendrick is) a great company. They’ve got great people over there. I think they’ll be just fine. It’s just this first year of not sharing anything together has been hard on both teams, I believe.”

Even despite the weaker results, some are less than convinced about any sign of demise for an organization that has 242 Sprint Cup wins and a record 15 NASCAR championships (11 in Cup)

After winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth slightly scoffed at the notion that Hendrick was on a tier below Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, and SHR.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Kenseth said. “It’s hard for me to ever feel bad for Hendrick. They’ve won a lot of championships, a lot of races, ever since I’ve been in the sport for sure. We’ve finished second to them a few times in the championship. They’ve been fast and you’ll definitely have to get through those guys to try to win a race or a championship.”

While Hendrick’s cars seem to have been faster lately, things invariably have gone wrong. At Daytona International Speedway, Johnson, Earnhardt, and Chase Elliott all were involved in the same wreck. At Kentucky Speedway, Johnson and Elliott crashed again.

Last week at New Hampshire, Johnson started on the pole position but placed 12th after sliding through his pit stall. After running well throughout the race in place of Earnhardt, Alex Bowman suffered a flat tire and smacked the wall, just moments before Elliott also caught a flat.

“Last week is kind of a good example of some of the difficulties we’ve had,” Johnson said. “We had competitive cars all running in the top 11, and in one corner, we lose two of them.

“It’s been tough, but I think we have a good foundation to build from. We have respectable finishes in our cars, but nobody wants to be a decent finisher or a respectable finisher. … I guess we’re tired of looking (at) the silver lining, and I’ve lost a bunch of cars here recently. I’ve been in the wall a bunch. So, we’ve got to quit that.”

The six-time series champion has made some uncharacteristic errors recently, wrecking two cars (in practice and the race) at Kentucky Speedway. At New Hampshire, he slid his No. 48 Chevrolet through the pits on his final stop, negating a potential top five or 10.

Johnson said the mistakes are because he and the Hendrick teams are pressing.

“I’ve been at 110 percent, and you make too many mistakes there,” he said. “And I think our team has, too. So, that’s one thing we have recognized, and we’re going to really try to dial back and make sure that we run where we should. If we have a fifth-place car that week, let’s be sure that we at least finish fifth.”

Gordon, who remains an equity partner in Hendrick, said it’s an approach that has worked for the competition.

“When Hendrick Motorsports is dominating this series, that highly motivates your competition; and they go to work,” Gordon said. “And sometimes you get torn down while you’re getting your butt kicked. But you start to find a way to get yourself better than you were before and hopefully get yourself in position.

“With the resources and the type of people that Hendrick Motorsports has, it’s sort of what’s happening to us right now. We’re being highly motivated by other organizations and teams that are out there and are getting great results. But we’re too good of an organization not to find a way to only make ourselves better and stronger and our cars faster to get back to that place.”

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”