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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.

NASCAR America: Hall of Fame inductees announcement at 5 p.m. ET

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The 2019 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame will be announced tonight exclusively on NASCAR America on NBCSN.

The broadcast will air from 5 – 6:30 p.m. ET and will reveal the next five inductees into the Hall of Fame located in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the winner of the Landmark Award.

Krista Voda hosts with Kyle Petty in Stamford, Connecticut. Steve Letarte, Nate Ryan and Dave Burns join them from the Hall of Fame.

There are 20 nominees, including the new additions of four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, Harry Gant, John Holman, Ralph Moody and Kirk Shelmerdine.

Gant, 78, competed in NASCAR from 1973-94, winning 18 races and 17 poles. He won four consecutive races in September 1991. He remains the oldest Cup winner. He was 52 years, 7 months, 6 days when he won at Michigan in August 1992. He’s also the oldest pole winner in series history. He was 54 years, 7 months and 17 days when he won the pole at Bristol in August 1994.

Shelmerdine, 60, won four championships as crew chief for Dale Earnhardt in 1986-87 and 1990-91.

Holman and Moody formed one of the sport’s most famous teams. Between 1957-73, Moody and Holman built cars that earned 83 poles and won 96 times. They won the 1968 and ’69 titles with David Pearson. Holman died in 1975. Moody died in 2004.

Here are the returning 15 nominees.

Davey Allison … 19-time Cup winner who won the 1992 Daytona 500. He was the 1987 Rookie of the Year. He died in a helicopter crash in 1993 at Talladega.

Buddy Baker … 19-time Cup winner who won the 1980 Daytona 500. He was the first driver to eclipse the 200 mph barrier, doing so in 1970.

Red Farmer … Records are incomplete but the 1956 modified and 1969-71 Late Model Sportsman champ is believed to have won well more than 700 races. Continued racing beyond 80 years old.

Ray Fox … Renowned engine builder, car owner and race official. He built the Chevrolet that Junior Johnson won the 1960 Daytona 500 driving. Fox won the 1964 Southern 500 as a car owner with Johnson as his driver.

Joe Gibbs … His organization has 148 Cup wins and four Cup titles (Bobby Labonte in 2000, Tony Stewart in 2002, 2005 and Kyle Busch in 2015).

Harry Hyde … Crew chief for Bobby Isaac when Isaac won the 1970 series title. Guided Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine, Neil Bonnett and Dave Marcis each to their first career series win.

Alan Kulwicki … 1992 series champion who overcame a 278-point deficit in the final six races to win title by 10 points, at the time the closet margin in series history. He was the 1986 Rookie of the Year. He was killed in a plane crash in 1993.

Bobby Labonte … 2000 series champion who won 21 Cup races. He was the first driver to win an Xfinity title and a Cup championship in a career.

Hershel McGriff … Made his NASCAR debut at age 22 in the 1950 Southern 500 and ran his final NASCAR race at age 90 earlier this month in a K&N Pro Series West event. Was selected as one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.

Roger Penske … Team owner whose organization has won 107 Cup races and one series title. Has been a car owner in auto racing for more than 50 years.

Larry Phillips … Weekly short track series driver believed to have more than 1,000 career wins. During an 11-year span, he won 220 of 289 NASCAR-sanctioned starts on short tracks.

Jack Roush … Team owner whose organization has won 137 Cup races and two series titles (Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004). Team has won more than 300 races across NASCAR’s three national series.

Ricky Rudd … Won 23 Cup races, including 1997 Brickyard 400. He is known most as NASCAR’s Ironman, once holding the record for consecutive starts at 788. He ranks second in all-time Cup starts with 906.

Mike Stefanik … Nine-time NASCAR champion with his titles coming in the Whelen Modified Tour and the K&N Pro Series East.

Waddell Wilson … Famed engine builder and crew chief. He supplied the power for David Pearson’s championships in 1968 and ’69 and Benny Parsons’ 1973 title. Wilson’s engines won 109 races. He won 22 races as a crew chief, including three Daytona 500 victories.

Nominees for the Landmark Award are Alvin Hawkins Sr., Barney Hall, Janet Guthrie, Jim Hunter and Ralph Seagraves.

Here are this year’s members of the voting committee.

National Motorsports Press Association (1)
1. Ben White, NMPA President

Eastern Motorsports Press Association (1)
1. Ron Hedger, EMPA President

American Auto Racing Writers & Broadcasters (1)
1. Dusty Brandel, AARWB President

Print & Digital Media (7)
1. Zach Albert, NASCAR.com
2. Jenna Fryer, AP
3. Mike Hembree, USA Today
4. Al Pearce, Autoweek
5. Nate Ryan, NBCSports.com
6. Jim Utter, Motorsport.com
7. Matt Yocum, FOXSports.com

Broadcast Partners (7)
1. Rick Allen, NBC
2. Jeff Burton, NBCSN
3. Alex Hayden, MRN
4. Jamie Little, FS1
5. Dave Moody, SIRIUS/XM
6. Doug Rice, PRN
7. Marty Smith, ESPN

Car Manufacturers (3)
1. Jim Campbell, Chevrolet
2. Edsel Ford II, Ford
3. David Wilson, Toyota

Drivers (3)
1. Ned Jarrett
2. Richard Petty
3. Ricky Rudd (recused)

Owners (3)
1. Tommy Baldwin
2. Junior Johnson
3. Eddie Wood

Crew Chiefs (3)
1. Dale Inman
2. Buddy Parrott
3. Waddell Wilson (recused)

Reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion (1)
1. Martin Truex, Jr.

NASCAR Community Leaders (5)
1. Paul Brooks
2. Mike Harris
3. Tom Higgins
4. Ken Squier
5. Humpy Wheeler

Fan Vote (1)

If you can’t catch the announcement on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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The weekend begins a day early for NASCAR teams this week. Cup and Xfinity teams will be on the track Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in preparation for the weekend races. Those teams are on track Thursday because there is no track activity Friday before the action kicks in with the Xfinity race on Saturday and the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday.

Austin Dillon is the defending winner of the Coca-Cola 600.

Here is this the track schedule:

(ALL TIMES EASTERN)

THURSDAY, May 24

11:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. — Cup garage open

1 – 9 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

2:35 – 3:25 p.m. — Cup practice (Fox Sports 1)

4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)

6:05 – 6:50 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

7:15 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

9 p.m. — ARCA General Tire 150; 100 laps/150 miles (FS1)

FRIDAY, May 25

No track activity

SATURDAY, May 26

6:30 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m. — Cup garage open

9:05 – 9:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1)

10:10 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (FS1)

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

12:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. — Xfinity Alsco 300; 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SUNDAY, May 27

12:30 p.m. — Cup garage opens

4 p.m. — Driver/crew chief meeting

5:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

6 p.m. — Coca-Cola 600; 400 laps/600 miles (Fox, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR America: Winning Coca-Cola 600 is a memorable feat

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The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR’s toughest events. Starting under the sun and finishing under the lights, every stock car driver wants to win it at least once – and 33 of NASCAR’s best can say they have.

It’s even more special when it marks the first time a driver has won at the top level.

“Everybody remembers the first time they do most things and obviously the first Cup win is something I’ll never forget,” Matt Kenseth said about his 2000 victory. “I caught Bobby Labonte and passed him with like 15 to go, or something like that, so it was obviously a very exciting day. You couldn’t pick a better one to win for your first one.”

Kenseth is one of seven drivers who won their first NASCAR race in the sport’s most grueling event. Notably, the driver he passed for the win that day won his first NASCAR race exactly five years earlier. Labonte won the 1995 edition of the Coke 600.

Last year, Austin Dillon added his name to the list.

“For me, it starts as a challenge from day one of the entire Speedweeks,” Landon Cassill said. “Because the industry is at home in Charlotte, when the fans come to town we get pulled in many directions.”

“For me, it was just kind of forgetting how long the race was and just focus on every lap,” Jeff Burton said. “If you make good lap times and you focus on getting a 100 percent out of the car every single lap, time goes by pretty quickly.”

Burton won two Coke 600s – in 1999 and 2001.

For more, watch the above video.

NASCAR America: Daniel Suarez’s success in All-Star Race provides 600 confidence

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The rules package used in last week’s All-Star Race did not provide technical assistance to any of the teams since it will not be implemented for this week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but Daniel Suarez gained more from his second-place finish in it than perhaps anyone else, according to the NASCAR America analysts on Tuesday.

Racing at NASCAR’s top level takes confidence that can only be earned with success.

“I don’t think a lot applies from a technical standpoint, but I think that momentum is important,” Jeff Burton said. “Daniel Suarez got moved up to the Cup series probably a year before they really wanted him to with Carl Edwards’ departure.

“He still is playing catch up a little bit. And that’s OK. He’s a young driver, he has time to catch up, but at some point you’ve got to have some success. … I think for Daniel, this race was exceptionally important because it reminded him he can drive a race car. Reminded him what it feels like to battle for the win.”

Suarez finished 11th in last year’s Coke 600 and finished sixth in the fall Bank of America 500.

“Daniel’s going to get a lot from the All-Star Race going into the 600,” Landon Cassill said. “Maybe because of his experience and because he’s a sophomore driver, he might get more out of it than Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick. Getting those reps in and restarting next to Kevin Harvick … racing side-by-side with those guys. More so than just the confidence. There are actual things that Daniel learned on Saturday night that is going to help him for the Coke 600.

For more, watch the above video.