Hendrick Motorsports duo battling for last playoff spot but encouraged by run

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LAS VEGAS — Jimmie Johnson was headed for his best finish in months before contact late in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway left him with a result outside the top 20.

Johnson, in position to score his first top-five finish since the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend, made contact with Kurt Busch’s car and cut a tire with less than 20 laps left. Johnson finished 22nd.

The result left him six points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman for the final cutoff spot to the second round with two races left. Bowman hit the wall earlier in the race and finished 19th.

Johnson entered the playoffs as the 15th seed and Bowman was the last seed among the 16 playoff contenders. Neither had scored any bonus playoff points this season.

Without those bonus points, both needed to avoid problems.

Johnson couldn’t as he raced Busch.

“Off of Turn 2, was racing hard, got loose and I touched (Busch’s car),” Johnson said after the race. “I didn’t think much of it and got halfway down the back straightaway and I could tell I had a right front flat. It was just racing hard off Turn 2 and I cut a right front down.”

Despite the disappointing finish, Johnson left Las Vegas encouraged.

“We were doing well, that was the thing that was most encouraging today,” Johnson said. “I think on a long run we probably had a second-place car. On the short run, (Martin Truex Jr.) seemed to have everyone covered for a large part of the race, but outside of that I think we were a top-five car easily. Very, very excited about that. Obviously disappointed we didn’t close and didn’t finish where we needed to, but it was nice to have speed in the car.”

Bowman also was excited about the speed in his car.

“That is the most speed we have had on a 1.5-mile all year,” he said. “I was running 50 percent … maybe 60 percent that first run towards the end and just mowing guys down. Our long run speed was so good. We were too tight to restart, but our long run speed was really good. So, that is super encouraging, unfortunately we don’t have another 1.5-mile for a while, but we can turn it around at Richmond too.”

Friday 5: Time for NASCAR to schedule one-day shows

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LAS VEGAS — Indianapolis Motor Speedway showed NASCAR this week what the sport’s future could and should be.

Two series racing on one weekday. No practice. No qualifying. Just racing.

As NASCAR looks to make its schedule more dynamic, the idea of one-day shows for Cup has been discussed.

Those talks should go further.

Run the Xfinity Series on a weekday and the Cup Series that night in prime time.

Fans want racing. Give them back-to-back events. Don’t waste time with practice or qualifying. Set the lineup based on points and go.

“I think that’s the kind of open-mindedness that we need to see more of in NASCAR, honestly,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports on Thursday of the idea. “I know that I’ve been in some meetings with TV partners and NASCAR trying to work on weekday races, especially during the summer. Hopefully it’s on the horizon, sooner than later.”

Fans saw a doubleheader Monday at Indy after rain washed out both the Xfinity and Cup races that weekend.

Such a schedule could work for one race, maybe two a season. This isn’t about making the entire schedule one-day shows, but the approach would compress the schedule. That, along with limiting most tracks to one Cup event per season, could put the season finale in September instead of November.

Kevin Harvick, who has talked often about the need for bold ideas with scheduling, told NBC Sports that the key to such a one-day schedule is that “you have to protect the integrity of the racing.” 

But he says one-day shows could be possible.

The biggest challenge could come from track operators, who likely will raise concerns that a one-day event could reduce how many people camp and attend the event.

As NASCAR looks to race on a weeknight, limit how many days teams are at the track and alter the length of the schedule, the overriding question must be what’s best for the sport. In some cases, track operators might lose out to what’s best for the sport. In other cases, maybe it’s the drivers or teams.

To not do anything is the wrong approach. Frankly, that’s not a tactic NASCAR is taking, but words eventually need to be turned into actions.

Harvick suggests more dramatic measures.

He notes that the most talked about race this season is one that hasn’t taken place yet.

The debut of Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval later this month has had those in the industry and elsewhere talking. Chaos, conflict and crashes are common themes from drivers, leery of the race that ends the first round of the playoffs.

“That really is something that everybody sees as unique,” Harvick said. “We need more unique events. You need a story before the story happens.”

He says more can be done with the schedule to create similar stories.

“Why shouldn’t Darlington have a playoff race once in a while?” Harvick said. “Why shouldn’t Bristol have a playoff race once in a while? Why is the championship race in Homestead every year? That’s for us? I don’t think so.

“I think it would be better to rotate (the title race) around. I think coming to Vegas for the first race of the playoffs is great. Not that Chicago was a bad spot to start it (but) starting there every year gets stale. You’ve got to keep it fresh.”

That means new venues, date changes and other ideas. That also should include one-day shows in the summer that have the Xfinity and Cup Series race back-to-back.

“I think the way the world is today and … the ask of the fans, the expense of things, it’s a valid option,” seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said of the notion. “When you look back to the late ‘90s the way fans consumed television and their avid love of our sport and the love of the automobile, all of that, they’d want a seven-day festival for a race.

“It’s just times have changed. I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all. Times have changed.”

The 2019 schedule is set, but 2020 can be a time for the sport to move forward.

2. A tiresome trend

Many drivers talked Thursday at NASCAR Playoff Media Day about needing to avoid mistakes to advance in the Cup playoffs, which begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Whether NASCAR is calling tire violations more closely on pit road to set a tone or teams are trying to push things, such penalties are up dramatically the past two weeks.

NASCAR called a total of 11 penalties for tire violations the past two weeks at Indianapolis (seven such penalties) and Darlington (four).

The 11 penalties for tire violations are more than NASCAR called the previous seven races combined (10 such penalties called).

In the last nine races, Martin Truex Jr.’s pit crew has been penalized for three tire violations, more than any other team. Next is Austin Dillon’s pit crew, which has been called for two such violations in that time.

3. Playoff wedding

It’s one thing for drivers to be engaged during the season but married — and during the playoffs?

No.

At least until this season.

Kyle Larson and fiancee Katelyn Sweet are scheduled to marry Sept. 26 — four days before the inaugural Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, which will determine what four drivers will be eliminated from the playoffs.

Why that date?

“Katelyn wants a warm wedding, and I race during the offseason so I didn’t want to mess up my offseason plans,” Larson said Thursday. “It happened to work out that we can do it right before the Roval there. So, it’s coming fast, and I am ready to get it done.”

I have kind of let her handle most of (the planning) and I will be there for the rehearsal dinner, the wedding and hopefully we don’t practice on Thursday. Because that will be rough.”

Cup teams will not practice that Thursday, so Larson will be OK.

4. Fond memories

Rockingham Speedway, which hosted NASCAR races from 1965-2004, was recently sold and the investors want to bring racing back to the 1-mile track at some point.

Jamie McMurray, who has been mum about his future with Chip Ganassi Racing, won the final four Xfinity races there.

McMurray was recently asked about the track and recalled not those wins but a moment with his fellow drivers.

Rockingham used to be the host of the pit crew competition. Drivers left from the backstretch pits and come down the frontstretch pit road for their stop. While they waited for the event to begin, they hung out along the backstretch pits.

“My memory of Rockingham is sitting on the backstretch (pit wall),” McMurray said. “I was sitting back there and Mark Martin, who had won I don’t know how many races at Rockingham (two Cup and 11 Xfinity races in his career). Mark is notorious for never giving himself credit and telling you how great you are. I remember Mark going: “You’re the guy now; you’re the man. I wish I could have done that.’ Like yeah, right, this is Mark Martin.

“That’s one of my favorite memories, my rookie year (in Cup) sitting back there with Jeff Burton and Mark Martin. I think Sterling (Marlin) might have been in that, so there (were) good stories being told.’’

5. Looking to keep a streak alive 

Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one race on a 1.5-mile track 24 consecutive seasons. That streak is in jeopardy this year. Hendrick’s only win so far this season came on the road course at Watkins Glen with Chase Elliott.

Four races remain this year on 1.5-mile tracks: Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

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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.”

Playoff hopeful Alex Bowman wrecks in Stage 2 of Brickyard 400

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Alex Bowman, who is 16th in the point standings, was involved in a wreck with AJ Allmendinger with 34 laps left in the second stage of Monday’s Brickyard 400.

The wreck occurred when Allmendinger got loose out of Turn 2 and forced Bowman into the outside wall.

Bowman continued after his team made repairs to his No. 88 Chevrolet under two pit stops. He’s multiple laps down.

Bowman will make the playoffs if there is a repeat winner today. If there is a new winner, Bowman will be knocked out of the playoffs. He cannot be eliminated by points.

Lessons learned from Darlington, Jimmie Johnson focused on what’s ahead

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. — It’s quite simple, Jimmie Johnson says.

“We just need to stop making mistakes,’’ said the seven-time champion, who has yet to secure a playoff spot entering Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Last weekend’s 39th-place at Darlington Raceway produced a litany of mistakes. The woes cut Johnson’s lead on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, who holds the final playoff spot, to 19 points.

Johnson and Bowman will make the playoffs if there is a repeat winner Sunday. If there is a new winner, then one of them will be bumped from the playoffs. Johnson is the only driver who has never failed to qualify for the playoffs/chase since the format debuted in 2004.

Johnson’s woes last week included all facets of the team. It started in qualifying. He hit the wall in the second round. With the race an impound event, the team had to start at the back of the 40-car field because the repairs came after qualifying.

Johnson climbed to 14th in the race before he had a loose wheel. He had a commitment line violation on that pit stop and had to return for a penalty. His race later ended after ran oil pump issue.

“There’s plenty of learn,” Johnson said of the Darlington weekend. “First and foremost, I look at myself. The excitement of having a good first round in qualifying, the frustration of having a bad first attempt in the second round led to me running wide in Turn 4. There’s the first mistake. I can learn a lot from that for sure.

“Going into the race, work our way into the top 15 and unfortunately a loose wheel, those things happen, it’s a part of it, a mistake there. I compound the mistake by missing pit road. Here we go again.

“Then the oil pump situation that happened. I think we learned a lot from that to make sure that doesn’t happen to our cars again in the future, especially at that track. So there are plenty of takeaways, plenty of things we learned. Kind of the overarching thing for me is compounding mistakes. People make mistakes, let’s not make a bad situation worse.

“We just need to stop making mistakes. I think I was in a position and drove outside of my means and drove over the 100 percent level because I knew I had such a good car. And I’m so eager to get back to winning and get back to leading laps that I just tried too hard.”

Johnson has two top-10 finishes in the last 11 races. He has gone career-long 48 races since his last Cup victory. When asked Saturday what a win this weekend would mean in what has been a difficult season, he said: “I couldn’t even put it into words.

“We’ve worked so hard and have had some good moments along the way that could have turned into great moments,” he said. “And mistakes on my behalf or the team or whatever it might be; bad luck, misfortune, we’ve just not been able to capitalize on opportunities that have been there. Plus, we’ve had a tough year. So, it’s been extremely frustrating and extremely difficult to live through, but we are all still very eager to turn it around and know that we will.”