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Upon Further Review: Big turnaround at Hendrick Motorsports but work remains

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — It was a celebration that seemed unlikely four months ago, let alone with 20 laps left in Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Yet, after the checkered flag waved on the 2016 season, Jimmie Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their Hendrick Motorsports team reunited on the champion’s stage.

While the organization earned its record 12th Cup title and Johnson scored his record-tying seventh, it doesn’t mask that this was one of the more challenging seasons for car owner Rick Hendrick.

As the No. 48 team and organization struggled, he asked Johnson and Knaus at one point this year if they were still good working together.

“I think it’s the toughest question when you have a relationship,’’ Hendrick said of why he would consider spitting Johnson and Knaus, who have been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002. “It can be in a dealership, it can be in a race team, when you have two guys that have been so good and you try to decide is it time? This year we started off really well, and then we hit a lull in the summer, and … we asked ourselves then, is this time, do we need to make a change?

“I think they have both made a commitment, they want to retire together. They want to finish their careers together.

“So when there’s problems, everybody kind of locks arms. This year the whole organization did (that) about the summer and the speed picked up for all the cars.’’

That’s what Hendrick Motorsports will need to do if it looks to rebound from such a challenging year. Consider:

— The organization endured a 24-race winless streak, its longest drought since a 28-race streak from 1984-86, dating back to the team’s inaugural season.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ fives victories this season were the fewest since 2011. The organization had averaged 10.25 wins a year in the previous four seasons. The last time Hendrick scored fewer than five wins in a season was 2000 when it had four.

Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (and Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman in place of Earnhardt) went winless for Hendrick this season.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ 29 top-five finishes  were the fewest since 2002 when the team had 23.

— Hendrick Motorsports’ 57 top-10 finishes were its fewest since 2005 when it had 49.

Johnson admitted last week that when his team was going through its struggles — he had three top-10 finishes in a 15-race stretch — he worried about the season.

“I thought we could make it through some rounds and maybe get to the Round of 8, Round of 12, but I didn’t think I could sit here and honestly tell you guys that we were a favorite for the championship or had a shot to win it,’’ Johnson said.

Things changed at Indianapolis. Johnson finished third and steadily the team’s performance improved, leading him to win three of the season’s last six races.

Now, Johnson looks toward a record-breaking eighth title.

“I don’t know what the chances are, but let’s go,’’ Johnson said Sunday night. “I look forward to the challenge of trying to get number eight.’’

RELAXED

Jimmie Johnson said that throughout the week and Sunday’s race he felt a sense of calm. He was so relaxed that during the 31-minute delay to clean up the nine-car wreck triggered by title contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano, Johnson dozed off in his car.

“I actually took a brief nap in the car and kind of woke up to the news that we were going to restart fourth, which was the ideal position to be in on that restart,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports. “Instantly, I just felt a momentum shift and smiled and knew that this calmness that I had through the course of the race, there really was a reason and purpose behind it that served me in the end.’’

Still, how does someone sleep in a car when they’re awaiting the final laps of a race that could tie them with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series championships?

“It’s so warm and comfortable in the car,’’ Johnson said. “You get sleepy in there at times. There had been such an emotional rush through the course of the race and working so hard to get into position. We sat there and we sat there and we sat there. I’m not sure I was out long, but definitely relaxed enough and took a siesta.’’

PIT STOPS

Tony Stewart finished his Sprint Cup career with 49 wins, 187 top-five finishes, 308 top-10 results, 15 poles and 12,815 laps led.

— Tony Stewart confirmed he will not need any further surgery. “We are free and clear this year on surgeries,’’ he said.

Brian Scott, who is retiring, finished 15th. He only had two finishes better than that this season. He placed second at Talladega Superspeedway in October and 12th at Auto Club Speedway in March.

Michael McDowell finished 10th Sunday. It was his fourth career top-10 finish, but this marked his first top-10 at a track other than a restrictor-plate track.

AJ Allmendinger placed eighth at Homestead, ending the season with four top-10 finishes in the final six races.

Kyle Busch’s sixth-place finish secured Toyota’s first Sprint Cup manufacturer’s title. Toyota drivers won 16 of 36 races this season.

— Homestead marked the 10th race (of 36) that went to overtime this season.

— After his Homestead victory, Jimmie Johnson has won at all but three tracks that host Cup races: Kentucky Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Watkins Glen International.

Friday’s schedule for Kansas Speedway

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NASCAR’s race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today with Cup qualifying and practice sessions for Cup and Xfinity.

Here’s the day’s full schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

Noon – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

5 – 5:50 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:10 p.m. – Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Friday 5: Kansas could be start of dominant run for Big 3

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — The opening half of the playoffs, with its Roval and other schedule changes, saw five different winners but such parity may be replaced beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Three of the season’s final five races will be at 1.5-mile tracks — Kansas, Texas and Homestead. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have dominated this season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Consider what they’ve done this year on such tracks:

Atlanta — Harvick won, leading 181 of 325 laps; Truex was fifth.

Las Vegas — Harvick won, leading 214 of 267 laps; Busch was second and Truex was fourth.

Texas — Busch won, leading 116 of 334 laps; Harvick was second.

Kansas — Harvick won, leading 79 of 267 laps; Truex was second 

Coca-Cola 600 — Busch won, leading 377 of 400 laps; Truex was second.

Chicago — Busch won, leading 59 of 267 laps; Harvick was third and Truex was fourth.

Kentucky — Truex won, leading 174 of 267 laps; Busch was fourth and Harvick was fifth.

Las Vegas — Brad Keselowski won; Truex was third, leading 96 of 272 laps.

Also consider that Harvick, Busch and Truex combined to win 12 of the 17 stages at those tracks and one can see how difficult it could be for other drivers if this trend continues.

Keselowski (-18 points), Ryan Blaney (-22), Kyle Larson (-26 with his team appealing his Talladega penalty) and Alex Bowman (-68) enter this weekend’s race below the cutoff line. Bowman must win or he’ll be eliminated. Larson, Blaney and Keselowski will need to win or hope others have problems to advance. Scoring a victory won’t be easy against Harvick, Busch and Truex, who have combined to win the last five Kansas races.

Don’t be surprised if the Big 3 dominate the second half of the playoffs.

2. The value of playoff points

Martin Truex Jr. enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in the last transfer spot.

He holds that position because of the 38 playoff points he’s accumulated this season. His advantage would be much less without having scored so many playoff points.

Brad Keselowski trails Truex by 18 points for that transfer spot. Keselowski has scored 13 fewer playoff points than Truex.

Ryan Blaney trails Truex by 22 points. Blaney has scored 25 fewer playoff points than Truex.

All the points matter throughout the season.

3. Kind words about Kyle Busch from a competitor

At a media event Thursday to promote the upcoming Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was asked about competing against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

“I love racing against Kyle Busch,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle is one of the best drivers that is ever going to come through this sport. The things that he does in the car are great, but he knows a lot about the car, too.

“And Martin (Truex Jr.) and those guys have run well over the last few years, so racing with those two teams, we’ve been around each other in the garage a lot. There’s a lot of respect amongst the three teams, but we all want to beat each other.”

4. What’s at stake …

Jimmie Johnson has five races left to score a victory this season and continue his streak of seasons with at least one win.

He’s gone 16 seasons with at least one victory, tying him with Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace for third on the all-time list.

Richard Petty holds the record at 18 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. David Pearson had at least a victory in 17 consecutive seasons.

5. How much does testing matter?

Kansas was one of three tracks NASCAR held organizational tests this season, allowing one car per organization to test.

In the previous two organizational tests this season (Las Vegas and Richmond), the winner did not test.

Kyle Larson was the fastest both days of the Las Vegas test on Jan. 31-Feb. 1. He finished third, highest among those who tested.

Kevin Harvick took part in the organizational test at Richmond on Aug. 27-28. He went on to finish second, highest among those who tested.

The organizational test at Kansas Speedway was Sept. 24-25. Here’s who tested:

Playoff drivers: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

Drivers eliminated or didn’t make playoffs: Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

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Dale Jr. Download: Talladega’s wild weekends

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A mostly uneventful race at Talladega last week turned wild in Turn 1 of the white-flag lap. A multi-car crash might have ended the race if not for the fact that NASCAR judged all the drivers in the accident were safe. Some drivers – notably Kurt Busch, who ran out of gas in Turn 4 of that same lap – were not happy.

But NASCAR was in a no-win situation.

“If NASCAR throws the yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not letting it play out; if NASCAR doesn’t throw they yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not throwing the yellow,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on this week’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download.

Earnhardt then recalled some other controversial calls when NASCAR threw the caution to this disapproval of the fans.

In April 2004, Jeff Gordon beat Earnhardt when the field was frozen due to a yellow flag. Afterward, irate fans hurled cans of beer at Gordon’s car.

“Jeff had just gotten up toward the front,” Earnhardt said. “And we’d been doing well all day long – and this would have been five in a row. So down the back straightaway going into [Turn] 3, Jeff side-drafted me and got ahead and I was side drafting him back and was starting to go back by him. And that motion as I’m starting to go back by him … another couple of hundred yards and I’d be back out front. And the 25 car [Brian Vickers] spun in the middle of the corner. NASCAR’s precedent at the time was the field was froze as soon as the car started to spin.”

Earnhardt was frustrated that Gordon, who had led significantly fewer laps in the race, was going to win.

We’re riding around and those beer cans are flying across the racetrack,” Earnhardt continued. “I got up against the wall behind the fence so I’m not getting many beer cans. Jeff goes further and further down toward the apron. … They were like throwing full beer cans. Now you know you’ve got some pissed off Alabama fans when they’re willing to throw a full can of beer.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Aric Almirola replaces grim Kansas memories with fond ones

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The 2017 crash in the spring Kansas Speedway that seriously injured Aric Almirola and kept him from competing in seven races that season continues to define his career.

“Breaking my back was obviously not in the plan,” Almirola said in an interview on NASCAR America. “I didn’t anticipate ever being injured in a racecar. Everybody always thinks, ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

But it did and each time Almirola returns to Kansas – like he will Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) – he is met with memories of the accident that will not go away. That’s because his crash continues to be part of the highlight reel for this track as one of its most dramatic moments.

As it turns out, his thoughts about the track have become fond ones.

Later in 2017, Almirola finished ninth in the fall Kansas race after finishing fifth the week before at Talladega. He finished ninth again this spring.

“Something that really stuck out to me there is how his perception has changed,” Parker Kligerman said on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Sometimes you have drivers who ascend to the top very quickly and they don’t have, maybe, a respect for what they’re doing and what they’re getting to do week in and week out. And when they’re … forced to watch the sport from another angle and … just observe, a lot of time they come away being faster, better, more appreciative.”

This week, Almirola goes to the track with an even better feeling after winning last week’s race at Talladega.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter