Rick Hendrick: ‘Jimmie Johnson has something to prove’

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Even though Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his NASCAR career – 88 races – team owner Rick Hendrick is convinced the seven-time Cup champion will return to victory lane soon, potentially as early as this weekend’s race at Dover.

There’s reason for Hendrick’s optimism: Johnson’s 83rd and most recent Cup win came at Dover. He also owns the one-mile all-concrete banked track’s record with 11 career Cup wins there.

This is the first time Johnson has not been part of the Cup playoffs since he became a full-time Cup driver. Not only has it been difficult on Johnson, it also has been rough on Hendrick to watch his driver go through such a prolonged dry spell.

“It’s been really hard,” Hendrick said Wednesday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track” show with Danielle Trotta and Larry McReynolds. “Here’s a guy that’s won seven championships, won five in a row, is one of the best drivers ever in the sport and to see him struggle, it just kills you. You want to do everything you can to try and fix it. To miss the playoffs was a huge deal, you just hate to see it happen when you’ve got a streak like that going.

But on the flip side, he is more hungry today and more committed and the team is really jelling quickly. Cliff ( Daniels) has just done a fantastic job. You can listen to the two of them, watch the spring in their step, and it looks like the early days of Chad (Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus) and Jimmie. So I’m really, really pumped up about that.”

How quickly could Johnson get back to victory lane?

I see Jimmie Johnson winning a race here, maybe multiple races, and I think it could happen Sunday (at Dover, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN),” Hendrick said. “So I’m going to be as excited to go to victory lane as much as I was when he won the championships. We’re just refusing to give up, he’s doing everything he can and I’m super impressed with Cliff. I’ve never seen a young guy mature as fast and be so quick to make decisions and just show skills that I’ve seen veterans go years without having.

So, we’ll see. I think Jimmie has something to prove and it’ll be fun to watch in Dover.”

Hendrick understands the frustration Johnson has been going through, particularly this season, his first year of not making the playoffs and his first season without Knaus as his crew chief.

You know that any athlete or anybody that’s had the success that he’s had, it weighs on you when you don’t perform,” Hendrick said. “But I think the pressure to make the playoffs was just a ton, almost as much as when you’re coming down to the end to win a championship. But once that was over and we moved on, he became more determined to tell me he couldn’t wait to get to the Roval (last weekend) and Dover, he just can’t wait.

It just built more fire in him and again and they’re clicking. It’s a tough situation to watch someone that good, someone with that much talent, not to be able to hit the stride you know he can do. We just all never gave up. We know we can do this, we know how good he is. It’s just a real spark right now because I see him having fun and feeling comfortable and confident, and that’s what it takes.”

Hendrick also raved about Chase Elliott’s win Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval, rallying back from 37th place after wrecking while leading with 44 laps remaining.

That was the most unbelievable comeback I think I’ve ever seen,” Hendrick told Trotta and McReynolds. “When he went off-course in Turn 1 and locked the brakes up, I thought ‘Well, that’s it, he may be able to get back to 10th, but that’ll be about it.’

But when all the cautions fell and he was back on track, he was doing some amazing things with the car. It was one of the most exciting races that I can ever remember. … It was a spectacular performance and a lot of excitement for the fans.”

When asked if he thought Elliott would be able to rally to finish 1-2 with teammate Alex Bowman, Hendrick replied, “Never, never, not the way he started that race. I thought the car was damaged, but boy, the way he came on in the second half of that race, especially in the closing laps, he did an unbelievable job.

If you had asked me to bet, I would have lost a lot of money that either of those guys would be in the top 10, let alone 1-2.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch ends the season No. 1

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The 2019 season is over and Kyle Busch is the NASCAR Cup champion. And not surprisingly, the younger Busch brother also ends the season as No. 1 in this week’s Power Rankings.

Busch received 39 of 40 possible points to take the No. 1 spot, followed by the other three Championship 4 contenders: Martin Truex Jr. (35 points), and Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick (tied for third place with 28 points each).

The biggest surprises in this week’s standings were Xfinity Series champ Tyler Reddick in fifth and Gander Outdoors Truck Series champ Matt Crafton in sixth.

Here’s this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Finally gets that second title. Last week: Second.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (35 points): Inexcusable pit mistake left him as the championship runner-up for the second year in a row. Last week: Fourth.

(tie) 3. Denny Hamlin (28 points): Came so close to his first championship, only to be fall short yet again. Could this be the closest he’ll get? Last week: First.

(tie) 3. Kevin Harvick (28 points): Needed a bit more help than he got going against the Joe Gibbs Racing juggernaut. Still, a very strong season regardless. Last week: Third.

5. Tyler Reddick (18 points): It’s hard enough to win one championship, but back-to-back championships with two different teams? Last week: Unranked.

6. Matt Crafton (14 points): Wins the championship without even winning a race (in fact, his last win was more than two years ago). Thrived on his underdog status. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Blaney (12 points): Finished 11th or better, including a win at Talladega, in five of the last six playoff races. Last week: Fifth.

(tie) 8. Joey Logano (11 points): Ends year with four consecutive top 10s, but he fell short in making it to the championship round and defending last year’s title. Last week: Eighth.

(tie) 8. Erik Jones (11 points): Ends season with four top 10s in last five races. That bodes well for next season. Last week: Seventh.

10. Christopher Bell (6 points): Missed his chance to add an Xfinity title to his Truck championship. Still, with eight wins, had an outstanding season. Up next: a promotion to the Cup Series. Last week: 10th.

Others receiving votes: Kyle Larson (5 points), Clint Bowyer (5 points), Cole Custer (4 points), Austin Hill (2 points), Brad Keselowski (1 point), Brett Moffitt (1 point).

Zane Smith joins GMS Racing for full-time Truck Series ride

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Zane Smith will compete full-time for GMS Racing in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series next year, the team announced Tuesday.

Smith, 20, joins the team after competing part-time with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series this year, where his best result in 10 races was fifth twice.

He will be GMS Racing’s fourth full-time entry next year, joining Brett Moffitt, Sheldon Creed and Tyler Ankrum. Sam Mayer will compete part-time.

Smith will have veteran Kevin “Bono” Manion as his crew chief.

“When I got the offer from Mike Beam asking me to run a truck full-time for GMS Racing, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity,” Smith said in a press release. “GMS is a championship-caliber team and to be a part of an organization like theirs is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m looking forward to working with Manion again. He has a lot of experience and I know we will be a great team.”

Manion, who has 24 wins across all three national NASCAR series since 2003, joins GMS Racing after serving as a crew chief for DGR-Crosley in 2019, including working with Rookie of the Year Tyler Ankrum. Manion was crew chief for Smith in 2018 when he made his Truck Series debut at Gateway and finished fifth.

“I am really excited to join GMS Racing and Zane (Smith) for the 2020 season,” Manion said in a press release. “With GMS Racing’s championship caliber equipment and Chevrolet support, we have all the resources to win some races and be in the hunt for the 2020 Championship. I got the opportunity to crew chief Zane (Smith) in his first Gander Trucks start in 2018 at Gateway and we worked really well together. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish next season.”

Sponsorship and an assigned truck number for Smith will be announced at a later date.

Penalty report from Homestead-Miami Speedway

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NASCAR issued four fines and one suspension for lug nut violations during its championship weekend in Miami.

Cup Series

Mike Wheeler, crew crew chief on Matt DiBenedetto‘s No. 95 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

Xfinity Series

Mike Shiplett, crew chief on Cole Custer‘s No. 00 Ford, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Truck Series

Steve Lane, the owner of On Point Motorsports and crew chief on Danny Bohn‘s No. 30 Toyota, was fined $5,000 and suspended one points race for two unsecured lug nuts. The No. 30 truck competed part-time this season and made 16 starts. The team told NBC Sports it will not appeal the penalty.

Trip Bruce III, crew chief on Stewart Friesen‘s No. 52 Chevrolet, was fined $2,500 for one unsecured lug nut.

Other

NASCAR issued an indefinite suspension to Jeffrey Schmidt for violating its substance abuse policy.

Truck Series gets minor name change for 2020

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Four days after the end of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season, NASCAR announced the series will receive a minor name change for the 2020 season.

The series will be called the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series when the season starts in February at Daytona International Speedway.

This is the second name change for the series in two years.

This season saw the name change from the Camping World Truck Series, which had been the title from 2009-2018.

Gander Outdoors and Camping World are owned by the same company.

Next year will also see a different name for the Cup Series. With the series going to a new sponsorship model, it will simply be called the NASCAR Cup Series.