Jeff Andrews

Playoff hopes for all three Hendrick Motorsports teams take big hit

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — A weekend that started with its cars starting at the front ended in disappointment for Hendrick Motorsports’ three playoff teams and left each essentially in a must-win situation next weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Ryan Blaney’s win at Talladega Superspeedway ended a miserable Monday for Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman, who each face playoff elimination next weekend.

Blaney’s victory assures him a spot in the next round, joining Kyle Larson, who won last weekend at Dover.

Bowman, Elliott and Byron — along with Clint Bowyer — are all outside the cutoff spot. Bowman is 18 points behind Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points and Byron is 27 points behind Logano.

While anything is possible, it will be difficult for any of the Hendrick cars to outpoint Logano for the final spot at Kansas.

“We’ve got three cars that really need to win to get in,” Jeff Andrews, director of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “I think the points thing right now is kind of irrelevant. The focus is to win.”

Should all three Hendrick cars fail to advance after next weekend’s race, it would leave Chevrolet one driver left (Larson) in championship contention.

That’s why there was so much posturing by Chevrolet this weekend, including its meeting with drivers, crew chiefs and competition directors after the race had been stopped Sunday because of rain. While teams within each manufacturer know to work with each other whenever possible, Chevrolet’s focus was on trying to help its three playoff cars advance.

Instead, they all face long odds.

Alex Bowman’s race ended when he triggered an 11-car crash by blocking Logano two laps from the end of the second stage.

“I just misjudged how much of a run (Logano) had there,” Bowman said. “That’s on me. These cars are tough to see out of and I didn’t do a good job of it. Probably shouldn’t have attempted to block that.”

Bowman finished 37th.

As for his plan at Kansas?

“We’re just going to go lead the most laps, win both stages and win the race,” Bowman said.

Byron was next to exit Monday, eliminated when he was hit from behind by Kurt Busch. Byron finished 33rd.

“It was just cars everywhere, drafting at 200 mph,” Busch said.

Byron said the contact was an “accordion effect (after) I had kind of lost momentum for whatever reason.”

While Elliott finished eighth, his car was damaged in the crash triggered by Bowman’s block of Logano. Elliott also failed to score any stage points.

“Just a train wreck,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said of the team’s day. “I don’t know what else to say about it.”

There really wasn’t much to say for Hendrick’s drivers except they need to win now.

Bubba Wallace on if things are over with Alex Bowman: ‘We’ll see’

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DOVER, Del. — Bubba Wallace says he regrets that others were splashed by liquid he sprayed at Alex Bowman but did not regret doing it to Bowman.

Wallace said Saturday at Dover International Speedway that he apologized to Jeff Gordon and Dr. Angela Fiege, medical director of the AMR NASCAR Safety team and reached out to Hendrick Motorsports executive Jeff Andrews, who also was splashed.

Asked if things are over with Bowman, Wallace said: “We’ll see. He’s already on six strikes.”

Wallace expressed frustration with Bowman for incidents the past two weekends at Richmond and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

“It’s the same thing as Richmond,” Wallace said of Bowman. “He ran over me as soon as he got to me at Richmond and got underneath me, this is the next time, he got underneath me and ran me up the race track, so I was ‘OK, he’s getting wrecked here, if he ever gets by me, he’s getting wrecked. In the fence.  Done.’

“We ended up beating him. I was, ‘Alright, that’s the higher road.’ It was over with. It was done.”

Until the opening lap of the race at the Roval the next week.

“(Then) Lap 1 of the new configuration of the Roval, after we had all sat there and watched the Xfinity race and watched a car come through from 15 cars back and wad up about six of them, it’s like ‘Alright, we’re the Cup level, let’s take it easy this first lap and just get through there,’ ” Wallace said. “What do you know? (Bowman) runs over (Austin Dillon) and me. Shoves me through the chicane, gives me a penalty. NASCAR and I talked about that. We’re on clear terms on why we got the penalty.

“It’s Lap 1. Come on. It’s a new configuration. Everybody knows how treacherous it is and he runs over us. So there’s no excuse for that. I believe he was the only car to run over somebody there on Lap 1. All of us except for one car had the mentality of let’s take it easy, let’s figure out how this chicane is going to work on the initial start.”

Later in the race, Bowman wrecked Wallace. Bowman said after the race that he tired of seeing Wallace flip him off multiple laps, saying last week: “Probably wouldn’t have gotten wrecked if he had his finger back in the car.”

That’s not the first time Wallace’s middle finger got him in trouble this season. Daniel Suarez had a post-race disagreement with Wallace at Pocono in July after he was flipped off by Wallace. So will Wallace alter his middle-finger policy toward competitors?

“It’s still going to be the same,” Wallace said. “You know what car gets it the most is (Martin Truex Jr.). Me and him have a joke about it. We laugh about it every time. It’s one of those, like I need to stop doing it because there’s a lot of eyes on me.

“At first it was just like a joke but it’s become obviously a thing and people are getting really sensitive over a finger and wanting to retaliate and right rear somebody on the race track, which is grounds for taking your gloves off and fight.”

Truex said that the middle finger is a joke between them after a discussion they had earlier this season.

“I got close to him coming off (Turn 4) and he got sideways,” Truex said of an incident at ISM Raceway in March. “I guess he thought I hit him and flipped me off for a whole lap. I talked to him a week or two later, and said, ‘Listen man, somebody is going to get out of the car one of these days and shove that finger straight up your ass.’ ”

Even after his issues with Bowman at the Roval, Wallace said he raced Bowman clean the rest of the event.

“We got that restart and they put us up there and we started next to (Bowman), close to (Bowman) and my spotter made sure I was well aware of who was on the outside of me and I was like, let’s just get away from him here and we drove away. But after the race I had had enough of him.”

After finishing second at the Roval, Bowman climbed from his car, sat down on the ground and leaned against his car. He was being treated for dehydration and overheating when Wallace approached. After a brief conversation, Wallace splashed Bowman and those around Bowman with his drink.

Asked if Bowman said something that led to Wallace splashing him, Wallace said: “He couldn’t have said anything, I was still going to throw water on him.”

Bowman sought to defuse the situation Friday. He told the media “I don’t think we need to talk before Sunday. I think it is what it is.”

They won’t be around each other at the start of Sunday’s Cup race at Dover (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Bowman qualified 12th. Wallace qualified 26th.

Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’ve questioned myself’ in quest to win again

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CONCORD, N.C. — In the midst of a career-long winless streak, Jimmie Johnson has questioned everything.

“You just start searching,” Johnson said, standing next to new crew chief Cliff Daniels in the Hendrick Motorsports race shop.

The seven-time champion sits outside a playoff spot with five races to go. While there have been some encouraging performances — Johnson scored pair of top-five finishes in the last month — the results show an 80-race winless streak that dates to June 2017.

“There’s always room for improvement,” Johnson said. “I also know that I’m part of the problem of why the car hasn’t had the success that it’s accustomed to having. I don’t think I’m the problem, but I know I’m a part of it and part of the solution.

So I’m all ears and always studying my teammates to try to figure out what I can do better. All ears to the staff that sits in that transporter and feeds me info. We’re all ready and hungry to get to the track.”

Jimmie Johnson is outside a playoff spot heading to Watkins Glen. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Johnson enters Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 12 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s there after finishes of 30th (Kentucky), 30th (New Hampshire) and 15th (Pocono) in the past three races.

He takes the blame for the crash at Kentucky while running in the top 10. A mechanical issue while in the top 10 ruined his race at New Hampshire. Johnson scored his first stage victory of the season at Pocono but he only gained five points on the final playoff spot.

Johnson admits he’s been honest with himself as he’s watched others celebrate victories he once did.

Am I stuck in a way that I’m not open-minded to change?” Johnson said. “Of late, I feel like I’ve probably been trying too hard and it’s very easy to try too hard.

“I’ve questioned myself. Do I talk too much? Do I overanalyze things too much? Am I confusing the engineers, the crew chief with the level of sensitivity I have in the car? At one point I felt that was a huge strength that I had. Now has it flipped? Now am I focused on too many small details and not worried about the big things? I’ve been bouncing around with various approaches on those three areas and I feel like I’m in a much better place in confidence as the year has went on.”

That confidence grows with Daniels as the crew chief. Daniels, who replaces Kevin Meendering, was one of Johnson’s race engineers from Dec. 2014-2018 before moving in-house at Hendrick Motorsports. Daniels returned to the team in June at Sonoma Raceway. Johnson said Daniels’ return created a spark that lifted the team. They both said that their previous time working together helps Daniels better understand Johnson entering this pivotal period.

Johnson has never missed NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004. He’s the only driver who can claim that. That streak is in jeopardy because of a season awash in disappointment. He’s not had more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this season.

“With five races to go, I think we would certainly be disappointed in our ourselves … if we hadn’t done everything we could possibly do at this point in time to get Jimmie and this team and (sponsor) Ally into the playoffs,” said Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, of the crew chief change coming now.

Cliff Daniels became Jimmie Johnson’s new crew chief Monday. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

The result was only the second in-season crew chief change Hendrick Motorsports has made since 2010. The other in-season crew chief change made by HMS during that time was in 2017 when Darian Grubb replaced Keith Rodden as Kasey Kahne’s crew chief with nine races left in the 2017 season.

With the challenges Johnson has faced and will face in the coming weeks, Daniels says that Johnson’s “fire is so intense right now.”

“If you look at the last four or five weeks, we have been top 10 or better contenders every time. Is that where we want to be? Absolutely not. We don’t just have expectations, we have the highest expectations on the 48. So just being a top 10 team isn’t good enough.”

Daniels’ elevation is part of the next stage for Johnson, who is in his first Cup season without having Chad Knaus as his crew chief. While Meendering is no longer Johnson’s crew chief, he played a valuable role to the driver.

“I think this year in working with Kevin and his support and the way he’s believed in me as a driver has been very helpful to my confidence,” Johnson said. “At the end of last year, the drought we’ve had, the fighting that Chad and I went through and all of that, it took a toll on me. Kevin did a really nice job of building me up this year and really helping me recognize the job I’m doing behind the wheel. I feel that I’m on my game and really doing a respectable job there.”

Johnson seeks to do more in strengthening the team as its leader.

“I’m learning a lot about team dynamics especially over the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “It’s been a responsibility that Chad always had in the past. Since we went our separate ways I’ve had much more of a role in that.

“You never know if things are truly going to work especially when you start from ground zero with somebody new. But I think intensity is a piece of it. I’d say the most important thing is the ability to communicate and that’s one thing that stood out so much when (Daniels and I) started working together at Sonoma was the level of communication. I think personalities can be different if you share that common drive and intensity and can talk about it. Just in life, right? Communication is everything and that’s really the piece that I’m most focused on.”

Daniels’ focus is on getting Johnson to the playoffs. Off the track, Daniels and his wife will welcome their first child, due in less than two weeks. Johnson said airplanes will be ready to take Daniels back to North Carolina if he is at the track when his wife goes into labor. Should Daniels leave the track, Hendrick Motorsports has a number of former crew chiefs who could take over that role for a day or so if needed, including Grubb, who is the organization’s technical director.

With the crew chief change, Johnson notes that Meendering  “didn’t do anything wrong at all.

“We’re still growing and learning each other, but we have to act now is the bottom line. We don’t have any time to waste. The history that Cliff and I have, I know that we’re going to come to the track and really be able to up our game.”

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Bump & Run: What should NASCAR do about qualifying?

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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’

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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.”