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.”

Truck results, point standings after Miami

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Brett Moffitt beat Grant Enfinger to the checkers by two seconds to take his sixth race of the season.

Playoff contender Noah Gragson finished third.

Stewart Friesen was fourth with Sheldon Creed rounding out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Moffitt’s victory earned him the championship. This is the first time since 1999 that the champion won the final race of the season.

With his third-place finish, Gragson finished second in the standings.

Justin Haley finished eighth in the race and third in the standings.

Johnny Sauter finished 12th in the race and fourth in the standings.

Grant Enfinger rounded out the top five.

Click here for the complete points report.

Brett Moffitt wins Truck race at Miami, takes championship

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Brett Moffitt beat Grant Enfinger by two seconds Friday night to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and the championship.

It was his sixth victory of the season.

Moffitt’s first win of the season came at Atlanta in the season’s second race but even then he was unsure if the team would have the financing to go to every race and be eligible for the playoffs.

“It’s unreal,” Moffitt said on FoxSports 1 from victory lane. “I didn’t know if I was going to get the opportunity to compete for a championship even after I got my first win.

“Everyone pulled together hard here. Back at Chicago (in June) we didn’t know if we were going to make it to the racetrack.”

Chicago was another race won by Moffitt.

Friday night, Enfinger finished second to Moffitt.

Fellow playoff contender Noah Gragson finished third. Stewart Friesen finished fourth with Sheldon Creed rounding out the top five.

MORE: Brett Moffitt seeks to join pantheon of NASCAR ‘stache champions

Moffitt achieved the title in just 36 starts – the fewest since Mike Skinner won the inaugural championship in 1995 in 20 races.

Moffitt’s championship comes with an uncertain future. He announced Thursday that he does not have a contract for next year.

Playoff contender Justin Haley finished eighth.

“We just struggled.” he said. “I don’t know why.”

Former champion Johnny Sauter battled handling problems for most of the race and was not a factor.

“It was awful,” he said. “Just no grip. We laid an egg tonight. I don’t know why.

“When you suck that bad, it’s whatever, you just go home and go what the hell happened? I’ll ask myself that for three months.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

MORE: Click here for complete results.
MORE: Click here for the complete points report.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Jesse Little tied his career best finish of sixth (which he first scored at Iowa this June). … Tyler Dippel finished 15th to score his fourth top 15 in five Truck starts.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Robby Lyons slapped the wall on Lap 78; he finished 29th. … Chris Windom started 10th but hit the wall with a handful of laps remaining to finish 24th. 

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “We were just too tight there (at the end). Needed to make better adjustments on pit road and that’s where it comes down to me,” Noah Gragson told FS1 after the race. “This one is going to hurt for a while.”

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Myatt Snider scored three top fives and eight top 10s on his way to rookie honors. Snider’s best finish this season was runner-up at Talladega. His best unrestricted finish was a third at Martinsville.

NOTABLE: This is the first time since 1999 that the champion won the season finale.

WHAT’S NEXT: Nextera Energy Resources 250 on Feb. 15, 2019 at Daytona International Speedway.

Should Denny Hamlin’s team take No. 1 pit stall or leave it for Kyle Busch?

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin’s pole-winning effort Friday night made for an emotional moment in his final Cup race with close friend Mike Wheeler as his crew chief.

Hamlin’s pole also created a quandary.

With the pole, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team has the first pick of pit stalls. Any other race, it’s an easy call: The team takes the No. 1 pit stall at the exit of pit road.

MORE: Denny Hamlin will have a new crew chief in 2019

But things are complicated because Hamlin is not in the title race and teammate Kyle Busch, who qualified second and whose team has second pick of pit stalls, is racing for a championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

If Hamlin’s team takes a different pit stall, it would allow Busch to have the No. 1 stall, which is viewed as the best on pit road. That could be the difference in having the lead off pit road and could impact who wins the championship.

So, what will Wheeler do when crew chiefs make their pit stall selection Saturday morning?

“We’re paid to win races for JGR and (sponsor) FedEx,” Wheeler told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely on my mind and my heart to be aware of that for Denny and our team. Obviously, we want to win a championship for JGR, too. That’s one of the biggest goals, a bigger goal this weekend. There’s some chatter going on about that.”

In one sense, it could be an easy call — let Busch have the No. 1 pit stall. The focus in any organization at this point is on the team racing for a championship. So why not give that team that advantage?

On the other hand, Hamlin is winless this year and could have one of his best chances to score a victory and extend his streak of consecutive seasons with a win to 13. He won this race in 2013 to keep that streak alive. 

“I think everything is earned,” Hamlin said. “Nothing is given. With us having the No. 1 pit stall, nobody else — none of the other competitors will have it. I don’t know. It’s a discussion. I mean, certainly I would think that (Wheeler), with the pressure always to win, you’ve got to do everything you can to win. We’ll have that discussion.”

The pit stalls at Homestead-Miami Speedway are 30-feet, 8-inches long. The camera at the end of pit road is about 40 feet from the No. 1 pit stall. That’s closer than some other tracks. That means a driver in that stall can fire out of the pit stall and surge ahead of those coming down pit road.

Last year, Hamlin’s team faced a similar issue but it was an easier call. Hamlin, who was not in the title race, won the pole. Martin Truex Jr., a title contender, qualified second last year. Truex’s team — which has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing — asked if Hamlin’s team could take another pit stall so Truex could have the No. 1 stall. Hamlin’s team declined.

Cup starting lineup at Miami

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Denny Hamlin posted a lap of 173.863 mph to win his second consecutive pole at Miami and his third in the past four years.

He edged teammate Kyle Busch (173.622 mph) by .043 seconds.

Martin Truex Jr. (173.539), Brad Keselowski (173.433) and Joey Logano (173.366) rounded out the top five.

Kevin Harvick posted a lap of 171.942 mph to line up 12th on Sunday. This is the furthest back he has been at Miami since 2015 when he qualified 13th and finished second.

Click here for the complete starting lineup.