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

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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.’’

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New Hampshire winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kevin HarvickHe no longer has to answer the question of when is he going to win (same for Stewart-Haas Racing). Now the question is if this will lead to a string of wins for the No. 4 team, which has shown speed but not been able to capitalize on it.

Parity — Kevin Harvick marked the seventh different winner in the last seven Cup races, the longest streak of the season.

Ryan Newman First, he was in a backup car and had to start at the rear on a track where passing is difficult. Then, he had a broken coil wire that sapped his engine’s power with about 100 laps to go. His team recovered and he finished seventh for his fifth top 10 in the last six races. Also, he climbed into a playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto His fifth-place finish was his third top-10 result in the last five races. Good progress for Leavine Family Racing.

LOSERS

Jimmie JohnsonBack-to-back 30th-place finishes have dropped the seven-time champion out of a playoff spot. He’s never missed NASCAR’s postseason — and is the only driver who can say that he’s been in the Chase/playoffs every year since its inception in 2004. Will that streak continue? Or will it end this year?

Richard Childress Racing — RCR cars finished 37th (Daniel Hemric) and 32nd (Austin Dillon). Hemric’s day ended after contact from Daniel Suarez. Dillon blew a right front tire early and that damaged his car.

Hendrick Motorsports — Alex Bowman’s team went through two cars before Sunday’s race. William Byron had to go to a backup because of an incident in practice. Mechanical issues caused Jimmie Johnson to finish 30th and Chase Elliott to place 29th. Bowman placed 14th and Byron led the way with a 12th-place finish. The best thing about the weekend for Hendrick Motorsports is it is over.

Kyle Larson — Two crashes within the last 100 laps made for a bad day Sunday.

With an inadvertent but legal deke, Erik Jones rallies for third

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LOUDON, N.H. – With critical points hanging in the balance for a playoff bid, Erik Jones thought he screwed up Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Instead, he inadvertently might have stumbled across a new strategy for keeping opponents guessing on pit stops.

During the final caution with 35 laps remaining, Jones swerved to the right back on the racing surface at the last minute, driving over the pit lane commitment box.

Jones began fuming over the team radio, but he eventually was informed there would be no penalty from NASCAR, which changed its rule governing pit entry over the past two seasons. Drivers with four tires below the boundary must enter the pits; Jones had only his left-sides below.

Two tires below once would have committed a car to the pits at tracks such as New Hampshire and shorter, and that caused some confusion on Twitter (NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell clarified the call).

But it raises an interesting point: Should every driver who is committed to staying on track fake a move to the pits by rolling over the commitment box as Jones did?

“I don’t think NASCAR would appreciate that very much, and I’m glad we didn’t get a penalty,” Jones said with a smile. “But it’s definitely an interesting situation. I forgot (what) the rules actually said, and I think many people probably were surprised by that.

“So I think you might see some more faking out. I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Crew chief Chris Gayle was sure Jones would escape punishment after he watched the replay and saw the No. 20 Toyota had at least two wheels above the inside boundary.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we’re good,’ because you’ve got to have all four below the box, and he kind of split it,” Gayle said. “I think he didn’t think about it. They say it in the driver’s meeting all the time now, and you’ve got to pay attention, but most everywhere it’s all four below the orange box.”

After restarting in second behind race winner Kevin Harvick, Jones hung on for third behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin and punctuated a race in which he overcame contact with two drivers and a speeding penalty.

He started fourth and catapulted into the lead with a two-tire call by Gayle on Lap 48. Jones finished second in the first stage and then made contact with Alex Bowman’s No. 88 Chevrolet while exiting his pit stall on Lap 111. That necessitated another stop dropping him to 28th as the last car on the lead lap.

“We had contact here on pit road (in the 2017 race), and it ended our day, blew a tire on the restart, so we couldn’t risk that,” Jones said. “We couldn’t have a DNF, so coming down to fix it was the right thing to do. We had to make that right and put ourselves back out there, but it was up and down.”

While battling through the field 20 laps later, Jones made contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who brought out a Lap 138 yellow by hitting the wall with a flat tire from the damage. Jones incurred a speeding penalty entering the pits during the caution.

But he restarted in 11th and steadily marched forward during the second half. He was in fifth when the yellow flew the last time, allowing Gayle to keep his car on track and restart beside Harvick.

“That was the good thing,” Jones said. “The (car) had enough speed to get back up there and get in contention. I think at the end with some clean air, we could be in (Harvick’s) spot, I think we were just as fast as him there the run before, so we have to keep putting ourselves up there, and eventually it’s going to work out, but a good testament to our team, just the way we came back today.”

With six races remaining in the regular season, he is ranked 14th and is 28 points above the cutoff line after entering New Hampshire in 16th with only a two-point cushion. But when other bubble drivers had trouble Sunday, it made Gayle’s strategy decisions simpler.

“It wasn’t as bad today because you start seeing other guys having problems that we were racing in the points,” Gayle said. “So when they all started having trouble, and we’re at the back, I’m like OK, this makes it a little bit easier. We can just do something and go for the win here at the end.”

Jones seems on the verge of a win after finishing third in four of the past nine starts.

With contract talks at JGR progressing well, the only cloud on the horizon might be Stenhouse, who vowed payback against Jones between and the playoffs.

“I guess go ahead,” Jones said when told of Stenhouse’s threat. “He was racing me really hard and for nothing. We were 200 laps to go in the race, and he had the choice of lifting and letting me go, and he didn’t do it for five laps, and that’s just how it is.

“If you’re going to race hard, you’re going to get raced hard. I didn’t want to have to do it, but sometimes it comes down to it. I like Ricky, but he races really hard. I expect it. If I’m going to race Kevin Harvick at the front of the field like that 10 laps in a row, I’m going to get wrecked. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to keep moving forward and keep giving yourself a good day.”

Denny Hamlin laments ‘stupid decision’ on final lap against Kevin Harvick

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In the aftermath of his runner-up finish to Kevin Harvick on Sunday in New Hampshire, Denny Hamlin was left regretting and praying.

He regretted his “stupid decision” on how to race Harvick on the last lap, which resulted in fenders banging and Harvick’s first win of the year.

That had Hamlin hoping a higher power might give him the win another way.

The tech gods could not be persuaded to intervene.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver wishes he had dealt with Harvick’s No. 4 Ford differently once they took the white flag.

He now knows he’d have been better off doing exactly what Harvick did in this race last year when he performed a bump-and-run on Kyle Busch in Turns 1 and 2 in the closing laps and went on to win.

“My decision was after Turn 1 and I got him out of the groove, ‘I don’t want to be the leader here, I’d rather be the guy behind’ and that was a stupid decision because I should have just went in there and carried him up the race track,” Hamlin said. “That’s just not the way I want to do it. We’re two veteran guys, we know how to race these things clean and let’s just figure it out in the end and he got the best of us.”

Hamlin said he has “lot of respect” for Harvick and “I did the best I could to be as clean as I could.”

Hamlin led 113 laps in a backup car after he crashed in practice on Friday.

“I knew we made it really good yesterday in practice, but once it got out front it was phenomenal and better than expected,” Hamlin said, but he lamented the difficulties of racing in dirty air with not getting to Harvick’s bumper sooner. “He never slipped a tire and I couldn’t quite get to him until he made that one little lane choice mistake coming to the white (flag) passing a lapped car and taking the bottom, I knew that was our opportunity to get a huge run and we did.”

Bubble Trouble: New Hampshire tough on those trying to make playoffs

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Sunday was a day of trouble for many of the drivers seeking to make the playoffs, but when it ended, Ryan Newman solidified his spot with a top-10 finish despite mechanical issues.

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson did not share Newman’s luck. Johnson fell out of a playoff spot after mechanical woes left him with a 30th-place finish for the second week in a row.

Here’s a look at what drivers trying to earn a playoff spot endured Sunday:

Ryan Newman — With just under 100 laps left, Newman radioed his crew that he thought his engine had lost a cylinder (it proved to be a broken coil wire) and he was down on power. When the crew told him to stay out, he responded by saying: “I ain’t coming in.”

Newman, who entered the race in the first spot outside a playoff position and in a backup car after crashing Friday, was running 14th at the time of the trouble. It looked as if he would lose several points. Instead, he managed to finish seventh to score his fifth top 10 in the last six races.

“Hell of a job today, guys,” Newman said on the radio to his team after the race. “That’s a never-give-up attitude.”

The recovery helped him climb from 17th in the points to 15th in the standings and in a playoff spot. Newman is 21 points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.

Jimmie Johnson — A broken water pump and power steering issues sent him to pit road and he lost several laps for repairs. That left Johnson with a 30th-place finish, dropping him out of a playoff spot.

Johnson is 17 points behind Clint Bowyer for the last playoff position with six races left in the regular season.

“Certainly a letdown to say the least,” Johnson told NBCSN.

“Certainly the wrong time of year to have some bad luck. It looked like the guys I’m worried about in the points didn’t have the best of days either. Maybe I got a pass on this one. Just disappointed to say the least.”

Clint Bowyer: A crash on a restart impacted his day and left him with a 20th-place finish that dropped him from 14th in the points to 16th, the final playoff spot.

Bowyer has finished 20th or worse in four of the last six races.

Kyle Larson: Two crashes in the final 85 laps left him with a 33rd-place finish for his second finish of 20th or worse in the last three races. Larson remains 13th in the standings and is 31 points ahead of Johnson.

Erik JonesHe had contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on the track and Alex Bowman on pit road. He also had a pit road speeding penalty and thought he was going to be penalized another time on pit road. Through all of that, he managed to finish third for the second week in a row and solidified his spot after entering the day in the last playoff spot.

Jones is 14th in the standings, 28 points ahead of Johnson.