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.”

Jimmie Johnson to drive rookie paint scheme in Cup season finale

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Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports will end their 17-year relationship with Lowe’s in style.

When Johnson and the No. 48 team show up for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 18 on NBC), Johnson’s car will have his rookie year paint scheme from 2002.

Johnson follows Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth, who drove their rookie schemes in last year’s season finale.

The scheme will cap off a partnership that began with two Cup starts in 2001 before Johnson went full-time the next year.

In 2002, Johnson earned the first three wins of his career and sat on the pole for the Daytona 500. His first win came on April 28 at Auto Club Speedway.

With Lowe’s, Johnson has won seven championships and 83 races. Lowe’s announced in March it would not sponsor Johnson in 2019.

NASCAR America: Experience vs. Youth: Justin Allgaier battling Christopher Bell

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The Cup series has the Big 3. Xfinity has the Dynamic Duo.

As the Xfinity Series begins its playoffs Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), many experts believe two drivers have an easy path to Homestead. Justin Allgaier has scored five wins and 39 playoff points. Christopher Bell has 32 playoff points. The next closest driver is Elliott Sadler with 11.

Allgaier is mindful of the accomplishments that brought him to this position. He is having a career year and knows it.

“Up until last year I’d won maybe one race a year at the max,” Allgaier told NBCSN’s Marty Snider during Xfinity Media Day. “Last year we won two, which was spectacular, but to be able to win five races this year, to have the regular-season championship, to just be as successful as we’ve been this year is just amazing.”

But that does not make him a favorite in his mind. There are simply too many other drivers that can win. Too many variables.

“There’s so many competitors right now in this Xfinity Series that are just absolutely fantastic. I don’t know that we have a clear-cut favorite,” Allgaier said.

On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Jeff Burton agreed.

“I think that (Allgaier’s) a favorite, but by a little bit, not a lot. … When I think about the Xfinity race from Richmond in the spring, Joe Gibbs Racing dominated it and it will be interesting to see, now as we go to more mile-and-halves … can Joe Gibbs Racing and Christopher Bell … get their rhythm back.”

Kyle Petty also puts Bell in the battle.

“This kid’s confident,” Petty said. “He shows confidence in every turn of the wheel. Everything he does. … and he shows great maturity.

“We’ve got youth and exuberance in Christopher Bell. We’ve got experience and maturity in Justin Allgaier and this is a battle. And it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Elliott Sadler wants to shed the bridesmaid role

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Elliott Sadler is the Mark Martin of the Xfinity Series, according to NASCAR America’s Kyle Petty.

“He’s been so close … so often. He’s almost like the Mark Martin of this series. Mark finished second so many times in the (Cup) championship.”

Martin finished second in the Cup standings five times without winning a championship. Sadler has finished second four times in the Xfinity Series and has not been worse than sixth since rejoining it fulltime in 2011.

Sadler knows the burning question is how he can shed the bridesmaid role. He also has a firm grip on what that is going to take.

“Justin (Allgaier) and Christopher (Bell) have pretty much told us you’re gonna have to win to advance,” Sadler told Marty Snider at Tuesday’s Xfinity Media Day. “They have been extremely fast – especially here lately. They’ve got nine wins between them.”

And with those nine wins, the playoff bonus points that ease their way to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

To join them in Miami, Sadler has to keep from getting swept into the temptation to make something happen that the handling of the car will not support.

“As a driver, you’ve got to understand not to get too high and not to get too low – to try and stay even tempered because the intensity is definitely ramped up and you can get yourself in trouble here real quick and the next thing you know you’re digging yourself out of a hole,” Sadler said.

Petty agrees. While Sadler’s lack of a championship does not detract from his career any more than it did Martin’s, earning that elusive honor is going to be tough for the very reasons Sadler identified.

“He’s probably mentally in a better place this year, but he’s going up against a couple of guys in Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier … that he believes are already in Homestead,” Petty said. “He’s going up against guys that are having career years.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America Scan All: ‘Three in a row at Vegas. Cha-ching, baby’

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In NASCAR, drivers have to be both lucky and good – something that Kyle Busch and Adam Stevens learned at Las Vegas.

After spinning on Lap 233 while running 18th, Kyle Busch was lucky that his splitter did not get torn off the car. Unfortunately, the right front tire went down in that incident.

“It’s not going to stay together,” Busch said as he limped around the track back to the pits. “We’re gonna [expletive] go a lap down.”

“There’s nobody one lap down here, so we can afford to go one down,” Stevens replied.

Their luck held. On Lap 247, teammate Denny Hamlin spun into the grass at almost the exact spot, but his splitter dug into the grass and was ripped from the car.

“We’ll be the Lucky Dog here,” Stevens told Busch over the radio. “We have a set of stickers left. I don’t think hardly anybody on the lead lap has a set of stickers.”

With fresh tires, Busch charged up to seventh.

Here are some of this week’s highlights from Scan All:

  • “Championship run starts now. We’ve got a good car; something we can win with today. Give ourselves a good shot in Miami.” – Joey Logano
  • “I am a [expletive] 10 tight. I don’t know what we’re doing to this thing, but we might as well [expletive] start over.” – Kyle Busch
  • “Listen to me. I know it’s frustrating, but we are right in the middle of this thing.” – Jeremy Bullins, Ryan Blaney’s crew chief said after Blaney and Aric Almirola made contact on the track
  • “I know. I’ll calm down.” – Blaney
  • “No you won’t, but it’s ok. I still love you.” – Bullins
  • “It don’t matter if I speed, slide into the box. It don’t [expletive] matter. We’re going to get our [expletive] kicked when we get to the pit box.” – Austin Dillon
  • “Hey. Listen here. These guys know they were slow, ok? They know. We’re talking about it.” – Danny Stockman, Dillon’s crew chief
  • “I love everybody on this team, but we’re not going to have a shot doing this.” – Dillon
  • “Guess we know what’s wrong. Piece of [expletive] tires.” – Kevin Harvick
  • “If we could have had the lead, we’d of been fine. I just got to wait for it to come to me.” – Martin Truex Jr.
  • “Three in a row at Vegas. Cha-ching, baby.” – Brad Keselowski’s spotter

For more, watch the video above.

(Editor’s Note: Danny Stockman was the crew chief for Austin Dillon this week instead of Justin Alexander. We regret the error.)

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