Jeff Andrews

Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about qualifying?

4 Comments

How would you fix qualifying?

Nate Ryan: Single-car sessions for all tracks longer than 1.5 miles. If necessary, make qualifying the last thing on Saturday or Sunday morning prerace to allow for impounding and keeping teams in race setups. 

Dustin Long: What’s the purpose of qualifying? Is it about entertainment or competition? If it’s about entertainment, keep group qualifying everywhere and cut the time to maybe three minutes per round to limit how much the cars park on pit road. If it’s about competition, then eliminate group qualifying and go back to single-car runs.

Jerry Bonkowski: Simple: Depending upon whether a track is wide (i.e., Fontana) or narrow (Martinsville, Indianapolis), I think NASCAR should put only two cars (at narrow tracks) or three cars (at wider tracks) out on the track at the same time to make qualifying efforts of just one lap (after a warm-up lap). No more waiting around or playing games on pit road. Force the cars to go out and lay down their best speed/time when they’re scheduled to do so. Like I said, it’s simple.

Daniel McFadin: On tracks longer than 1.5-miles I would line cars up on pit road in single file and send them out in 15-second intervals to avoid creating a draft.

Prior to Denny Hamlin’s victory Sunday, has the Daytona 500 winner been unjustly overlooked for having the best start to a season during his 14-year Cup career?

Nate Ryan: Yes, there probably were few who realized he was second in points before Texas. Though teammate Kyle Busch has been faster, Hamlin’s consistency has been impressive, and he’s qualifying as well as at any point in his career. His best start to a Cup season deserved more recognition, but Hamlin unfairly has been overlooked often in his 14 years on the circuit.

Dustin Long: He was in the past few weeks with so much attention devoted to Team Penske and Kyle Busch. If Hamlin keeps winning, he’ll get plenty of attention.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m not sure if I would say unjustly overlooked, but Hamlin hasn’t necessarily been in conversations about who’s the best driver in Cup thus far this season. So much focus has been on Kyle Busch and the Team Penske drivers that Hamlin kind of got lost in the shuffle. But it’s hard to ignore a guy who has two wins, six top 10s and has not finished lower than 11th in a race thus far in 2019.

Daniel McFadin: While his best start should be recognized, it hasn’t been that flashy. In the races between his wins at Daytona and Texas he never finished better than fifth and led only 15 laps.

How will Kevin Harvick’s terse comments about performance be received at Stewart-Haas Racing, where the other three drivers seemed happy with their cars Sunday?

Nate Ryan: They probably went over with a thud, but that’s also how Harvick intends them to be taken. As the team’s alpha dog, Harvick believes SHR is at peak optimization when his car is leading the way. Though his teammates were all pleased by their Texas results, it had to be jarring that the 2014 champion was bringing up the rear simply because he was the slowest. It’ll be intriguing to observe how SHR adapts if that becomes a trend as Harvick has been virtually the lead driver of every team he’s been on since his 2001 entry to Cup. 

Dustin Long: Crew chief Rodney Childers also expressed his disappointment after the race on social media. This just isn’t on Harvick. Stewart-Haas Racing had all four of its drivers win races last year. Now, nearly a fifth of the way through the season, the team is winless. I wouldn’t expect anyone to be happy about that at SHR.

Jerry Bonkowski: It was merely Kevin being Kevin. He’s kind of like Kyle Busch — anything less than a win means it’s been a bad race. It also could be an indicator of the increasing frustration Harvick has had in each race, still unable to get his first win of 2019.

Daniel McFadin: While I can understand Harvick’s frustration in SHR and specifically him not winning yet, his comments are hard to accept when two teammates had their best finish of the year at Texas and all four cars have finished in the top 10 two weeks in a row.

Hendrick Motorsports had three drivers lead and two finish in the top six at Texas. What do you make of the organization’s performance?

Nate Ryan: Aside from a victory, Texas was a mission accomplished morale booster for this proud organization, which showed it still can play catch-up. After the past two weeks, it seems as if momentum is building.

Dustin Long: Nice run for the organization but there’s still more work to do, as Jeff Andrews, the team’s GM, told me after the race.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s only one race. While it certainly seems like HMS has potentially turned a corner, I won’t be fully convinced the organization is back on the right track until it has consistent multi-finishers in the top 10, not to mention race winners.

Daniel McFadin: It’s a feel good story after the previous six races, but I’m sure no one at Hendrick is completely satisfied and won’t be until this is a regular occurrence.

Should NASCAR be using more traction compound on every track after drivers hailed its efficacy at Texas?

Nate Ryan: No. Sunday’s race conditions were as much a result of the cooler weather and minimal tire wear. Turning traction compound into a weekly crutch has its pitfalls. 

Dustin Long: It hasn’t always worked as intended at some tracks, but that shouldn’t deter officials from examining where traction compound can enhance the racing.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m torn on this one. While I understand the traction compound helps, I’m also a purist in the sense I don’t like to see artificial ways to create traction. It should come from the rubber on the tires only in my mind.

Daniel McFadin: I’m all for tracks attempting, at least once, to improve racing with traction compound. There’s no harm in that.

Hendrick Motorsports places two cars in top 10 but ‘still a lot of work to do’

1 Comment

FORT WORTH, Texas — Three of its cars led, two finished in the top 10 and one placed fifth Sunday for Hendrick Motorsports, but Jeff Andrews, the team’s general manager, noted that there is “still a lot of work to do.”

Jimmie Johnson led the organization with his season-high fifth-place finish. It marked his first top five since last year’s Coca-Cola 600, which was 10 months ago.

William Byron matched his career best with a sixth-place finish. Chase Elliott was 13th, while Alex Bowman placed 18th in a backup car. Johnson (60 laps), Elliott (35) and Byron (15) combined to lead nearly a third of the 334-lap race.

“Our goal was to go out today and execute a clean race and take the cars we had starting up front there and keep them there all day,” Andrews told NBC Sports. “Certainly the way … the midway part of the race played out was strategy … and shuffled that up. The encouraging thing was that we were able to claw our way back up through there.”

Sunday marked the first time this season that Hendrick Motorsports placed two cars in the top 10. With Elliott’s runner-up finish last weekend at Martinsville and Johnson’s fifth on Sunday, it was the first time this year Hendrick cars have finished in the top five in consecutive weekends.

Andrews said the organization has worked in all areas from engine to aero to improve its cars this season.

“Certainly a good step for us, not all the way there by any means,” he said. “I think for everybody to feel a little bit better, we need to go to Kansas and some other intermediate tracks and have similar days.”

Johnson said the big difference was having a faster car. His No. 48 Chevrolet was quick in qualifying and practice and carried that through the race, leading the opening 59 laps from the pole. But when he got back in traffic, he struggled. It wasn’t as much as he did at Las Vegas, but there’s still work to do there.

“Driving way better in traffic,” Johnson said. “I think we found a really good direction. This was a great learning point for us. Vegas went so badly we kind of scrapped it all and started all over. Atlanta, scrapped it all and started over. Fontana was OK, still not what we needed. Now that we have not only the 48 running well, but all the cars had speed, we have a great foundation to build from.”

Byron said the speed difference was noticeable Sunday.

“Just faster cars,” he said. “We were faster down the straightaways and faster in the corners a little bit. It just felt like our cars were faster. It didn’t really handle that different, but we were quicker and able to make passes and drive away and that felt good.”

Long: Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus end mirrors their beginning in subtleness

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. — Their beginning can be found on page 2C of the Dec. 11, 2001 edition of The Charlotte Observer.

Below a note that Ryan Newman would use the No. 12 for his rookie Winston Cup season and an item about Mark Martin’s new car chief at Roush Racing, was a small headline:

Knaus goes back to Hendrick.

The three-paragraph item stated that Chad Knaus would return to Hendrick Motorsports to be rookie Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief for the 2002 season.

Nearly 17 years — and seven championships — later, the announcement of the duo’s pending departure shocked NASCAR in the same understated way.

Even though such news would merit a formal press conference streamed online, this was a casual session. Reporters sat on a couch or comfy chairs. Johnson and Knaus walked in carrying drinks in paper coffee cups.

They sat beside each other inside a building on the Hendrick Motorsports campus that didn’t exist when they began working together and discussed why a partnership that produced a record-tying number of titles and 81 wins (Johnson won twice while Knaus was suspended by NASCAR in 2006) would not continue after this year.

The end did not come because of one thing or another in particular but over time. Yes, a 53-race winless streak contributed to it, a sign that a partnership that had been feared in the garage was beatable. While they had pondered separating in the past, now it made sense.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Johnson said. “It took time to make it and you go through the thoughts of seeing it end. Could we have finished together? Of course, we have batted around all the questions that you are asking, but at some point, you have to go with your gut and it just feels right.”

Knaus preferred to look back at what they’ve accomplished.

“Let’s be frank, whoever thought that this would have gone 17 years? My point is this, instead of reflecting on what is the unknown, reflect a little bit on what we accomplished,” he said. “And that is what I have really focused on. 

“We have done amazing things over the course of our career. It should not have stemmed the span that it did. That is very, very comforting to me, personally. You can try to twist it all you want and do that stuff, but that is not what it is about. There are great opportunities for both of us.”

Their responses reveal who they are. Johnson, the California native with the heavy right foot and thoughtful, free-thinking ways and Knaus the no-nonsense Midwesterner.

When they started, they were the new kids who had been given access to car owner Rick Hendrick’s castle. Their debut season together came after Jeff Gordon had won his fourth title in 2001.

With a champion to lean on and more toys — resources — than the North Pole, Knaus played mad scientist and Johnson was Speed Racer. They won a pole in their first start. They won a race in their 10th start together. Then they won three races later.

While they fought — as brothers, as they liked to say — success kept them together. The longer they lasted, the more it seemed as if they would stay together until Johnson quit driving.

But the struggles on the track accelerated the thinking. While this team has shown more speed recently and Knaus remains confident that they can win this season, it became time for change.

“We have had a hell of a run,” Johnson said. “And a new spark probably wouldn’t hurt us. There is something to that and something new that we can both participate in. And then still at the same time be there for one another on a level that I don’t think has ever existed when a driver/crew chief do split. These splits usually are pretty tough. And in our situation, it’s not that. So, I have an ally and he has an ally. 

“Once you make the decision, and you start putting one foot in front of the other, I often find a lot of excitement in those moments and I have in this.”

Now that we know they will be apart, the question becomes how much longer will they be in their current roles?

Johnson’s contract is through 2020. The 43-year-old would like to drive another decade or more but admits those all won’t be in Cup.

Knaus’ contract also goes through 2020. How much longer will the 47-year-old father of a newborn want to be on the road every weekend?

“As of right now, the goal is going to be for me personally is go build the No. 24 team to be the best team that I am possibly capable of,” Knaus said. “And we go and we win.”

Then Knaus added: “I doubt very highly that William and I will be together for 17 years.”

He laughed.

Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, said that Knaus understands the challenges ahead.

“I know that Chad wouldn’t commit to do it if he had short-term plans about it,” Andrews said. “He knows that it’s going to take some level of commitment. That commitment is going to be possibly years to get the success out of it that he expects and we expect out of it.”

Until then, there are six races left for Knaus and Johnson to work together, six more chances to win another race, six more Sundays of us vs. them and then this chapter ends.

And a new era begins.

Johnson will be paired with Kevin Meendering, who rose through the ranks at Hendrick and has served as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief the past three seasons at JR Motorsports. Knaus will be teamed with 20-year-old wunderkid William Byron, who is a part of the organization’s future, just as Johnson was when he began.

Off the track, a new era also begins for Johnson and Knaus.

“I talked to Gordon about it and he swears that he and Ray (Evernham) are better friends now than what they were when they were winning championships and winning races,” Knaus said, “and I feel like we will be the same way.”

With that, Johnson and Knaus got up and walked along a quiet hallway to their next assignment. Work remained.

 and on Facebook

Hendrick Motorsports seeks to snap yearlong winless streak

1 Comment

When Kevin Harvick crossed the finish line first Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it not only continued the dominance of the sport’s Big 3, it also continued Hendrick Motorsports’ winless drought.

The organization, which has won a record dozen Cup titles, has gone 36 races — a full season — without a series win. Monday was the one-year anniversary of Kasey Kahne’s overtime victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports has not won since, leaving it at 249 career Cup victories (ranking second to Petty Enterprises’ 268 wins on the all-time list).

This is the second-longest winless drought for Hendrick Motorsports. It had a 40-race drought that went from June 1991 at Sonoma to September 1992 at Richmond. Ricky Rudd snapped the organization’s drought the following race at Dover.

“We’re working really hard right now on our performance from the entire organization side,” said Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, on a periscope video posted by the team Wednesday morning. “Everybody is working really hard to get us back to the standards where we expect to be.”

NASCAR AMERICA: Chase Elliott joins Dale Earnhardt Jr. on today’s show at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

While Hendrick searches for its next win, it could celebrate Chase Elliott winning a stage last weekend at New Hampshire — the first stage a Hendrick driver has won this season.

Elliott scored his team-high fifth top-five of the season at New Hampshire, placing fifth.

“We took a step in the right direction,” he said after the race.

His best finish this season is a runner-up performance at Richmond. Short tracks have been good for Hendrick Motorsports this season. Jimmie Johnson’s best finish of the year is third at Bristol. Alex Bowman’s best finish of the year is fifth at Bristol.

Johnson, Elliott and Bowman are in a position to make the playoffs. They hold what would be the three final spots. Bowman, who holds what would be the final playoff spot, has finished 11th or better in four of the last five races. He holds a 28-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and a 29-point lead on Paul Menard for that spot.

Johnson was 10th at New Hampshire and also saw signs of progress.

“Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to,’’ he said at New Hampshire. “All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

WINLESS STREAKS BY ORGANIZATION

0 races – Stewart-Haas Racing

1 – Furniture Row Racing

2 – Joe Gibbs Racing

10 – Team Penske

19 – Richard Childress Racing

30 – Chip Ganassi Racing

36 – Hendrick Motorsports

39 – Roush Fenway Racing

42 – Wood Brothers Racing

71 – Front Row Motorsports

142 – JTG Daugherty Racing

147 – Richard Petty Motorsports

 and on Facebook