Rick Hendrick reflects on ‘toughest year’ in ‘a long, long time’

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Somehow, someway Hendrick Motorsports put three of its four drivers in the Cup playoffs.

The team will be represented by Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and newcomer Alex Bowman in at least the first round, which begins Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The regular season ended with only Elliott locked in with a victory and Johnson and Bowman the last drivers in on points. Johnson enters the playoffs in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career (49 races).

The organization, which owns 12 championships and 250 wins, enters the 10-race playoff with just one win this season and since last year’s Brickyard 400, which was won by Kasey Kahne in July.

That adds up to arguably one of the worst seasons in its history, which began in 1984.

Just ask owner Rick Hendrick.

“It’s probably been the toughest year that I’ve experienced in a long, long time,” Hendrick said Thursday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.” “Without race wins, without leading races.”

Since 1984 (three wins), Hendrick’s worst seasons win wise have been 1985 (none), 1987 (three), 1988 (four), 1990 (one), 1991 (three), 1992-93 (one each) and 2000 and 2017 (four each).

The current four-car team, which includes rookie William Byron, has 12 top fives, 34 top 10s and has led only 372 of 67,611 laps through the first 26 races.

Hendrick attributes those struggles in part to a confluence of changes for the team and the sport this season.

“I think I take a lot of the blame there,” Hendrick said. “We underestimated the amount of effort and the distraction it was when we decided to build this team center and put all the engineers and all the crew chiefs together.”

Before this year, HMS split its four teams into two different shops at its Concord, North Carolina, campus.

“It’s the right thing to do and we did it in the offseason,” Hendrick said. “But it spilled over a little bit into the start of the season.”

That change merged with the addition of Bowman and Byron to the full-time driver stable as the team transitioned to the Chevrolet Camaro. The new model has visited Victory Lane twice this season, with Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500 and Elliott at Watkins Glen.

“We underestimated the work that we needed to do with the new car,” Hendrick admitted. “We were late getting the Hawkeye (OSS inspection system) installed at our shop. I look back and it was just too many changes, too many things. We just got behind.”

Hendrick said “if it could go wrong with us this year, it’s gone wrong at different times,” but that he “can see the momentum coming.”

“With the 48 (Johnson), I think they just were affected as much as anyone with all the changes and we’ve not been able to get back to our stride,” Hendrick said. “Chase getting a win really lifted the whole organization and when we had those good runs at Bristol (Elliott placed third and Johnson eighth), everything that gave us a little momentum has felt good. We just got to finish it off.”

Elliott enters the playoffs off a 15th-place finish at Indianapolis. That was his first finish outside the top 10 in six races. He leads the team with eight top fives and 14 top 10s.

Johnson, who is seeking his eighth championship, has two top fives and eight top 10s. Bowman has two top fives and nine top 10s.

“I’ve had some years where we peaked early, but we haven’t come close to peaking this year,” Hendrick said. “We’ve been playing catchup and we still got work to do. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re getting better.”

Hendrick was asked about his confidence level in Johnson being able to earn a record eighth title

“In ’16, I didn’t think we had a shot and we won it,” Hendrick said. “Anything’s possible. We’ve got some good tracks for us coming up. It’s not like one of those years where I thought it was ours to lose for sure. Things have got to go our way. We’ve got to be lucky in some cases and we’ve got to keep improving. I’ve seen this before. Anything can happen. You just got to show up and show up with your game face on and get it done.”

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1, Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).

Clint Bowyer looking for some of his old magic at the ‘Magic Mile’

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While the next race on the NASCAR Cup schedule is Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer is already thinking four months and 17 races ahead to mid-November’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Winning a championship is the reason we are in this sport,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said in his weekly media release. “It’s why everyone puts in these long hours during a long season.

Winning a championship is what we dreamed about ever since we started racing. It was a great feeling to win the Xfinity title in 2008, and I can’t imagine the feeling of satisfaction you would get by winning a Cup title.”

But Bowyer also knows all too well that to make it to the four-driver, winner-take-all championship-deciding race in South Florida, he has a bit of work to firm up his position just to make the playoffs, which begin Sept. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer hopes to be smiling and partying after winning what would be his third career triumph this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Photo: Stewart-Haas Racing.

Heading to New England, Bowyer is tied for 14th place with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. They’re eight points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones, who holds the final playoff spot. Ryan Newman, the first driver outside a playoff spot, is 10 points behind Bowyer and Johnson. Daniel Suarez is 12 points behind the duo.

A win would lock Bowyer into the playoffs. That’s why Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is so important to the Kansas native.

Of Bowyer’s 10 career Cup wins, two have been at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile.” He won there in 2007 and 2010. He also has four top fives and nine top 10s in 25 career starts at that track.

I love New Hampshire,” Bowyer said. “That place just fits my driving style.

We don’t get up to that part of the country a lot, so it’s good to see the race fans there. They have so many tracks and they love their racing, from Modified to Late Models to our stuff. The support races they put on at New Hampshire are some of the best of the year. Man, do they like to party there.”

Bowyer will be partying himself if he can win Sunday’s race. Still, it’s not been a bad season for Bowyer to date, either. He has five top fives and four other top-10 finishes.

Bowyer is coming off a sixth-place finish at Kentucky last Saturday, a marked improvement from what he suffered through in three of the four previous races with finishes of 35th (Michigan), 37th (Chicagoland) and 34th (Daytona).

We dug ourselves a hole in June and we are trying to climb out of it,” Bowyer said. “We aren’t a 16th-place team. I know we are better than that.”

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NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett on Dale Jr. Download, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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They have the same first name, they have famous racing fathers and they’re both on today’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download on NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to this week’s show.

The pair kick back and have swap stories. One of the most notable tales: Jarrett talked about his father Ned’s friendship with Dale Jr.’s grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt.

Jarrett related how the relationship between his father and Ralph hit a rough patch after they had a dust-up in a Sportsman race. The normally mild-mannered Ned was so angry at Ralph that he refused to attend his wife’s baby shower for Dale Sr. because Ralph would also be in attendance.

Ned Jarrett dutifully drove his wife to the shower, but stayed in his car the entire time.

Catch the outcome of that story, as well as many others on today’s edition of NASCAR America.

If you can’t catch today show on TV, watch 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.

 

Danielle Trotta new host of NBCSN’s Victory Lap post-race show

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Danielle Trotta will join NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage as host of the “Victory Lap” post-race show for select Cup Series races this year.

Trotta made the announcement Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track,” the show she began co-hosting this year with Larry McReynolds.

Trotta has also been with NBC Sports Boston since 2018.

As part of “Victory Lap,” which begins Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBCSN after the Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, fans will be able to call in with questions about the race. Trotta will be joined by AJ Allmendinger and Parker Kligerman this weekend.

“It’ll be fun to continue the conversation,” Trotta said after making the announcement on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think after the race ends and you hear the driver’s post-race comments and we see the highlights, as a race fan on so many Sundays, I would sit on my couch and want more. I would want more coverage, more conversation, more conjecture and I think that’s exactly what NASCAR “Victory Lap” has always been and will continue to be, and then we take the next step of really wanting the conversation to be interactive and having people call live into the show.”

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