keith rodden

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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Darian Grubb named Kasey Kahne’s crew chief for remainder of playoffs (video)

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Kasey Kahne will have Darian Grubb as his crew chief for the remaining nine races of the NASCAR Cup playoffs and Kahne’s tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Monday.

Grubb replaces Keith Rodden, who has been with Kahne on the No. 5 Chevrolet since 2015. Hendrick makes the move after Kahne finished 21st, three laps down in Sunday’s playoff-opening race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Kahne, who qualified for the playoffs with his Brickyard 400 win in July, left Chicagoland 15th in the playoff standings, five points behind the cutoff for the second round.

The Brickyard 400 win was the only one for Kahne and Rodden in their three seasons together at Hendrick. It is Rodden’s only victory in 138 races as a Cup crew chief. The Indy win also is Kahne’s only top-10 finish in the last 17 races.

Before taking over crew chief duties on the No. 5 in 2015, Rodden worked with Kahne on the No. 5 from 2012-13 as the lead engineer before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing for one season.

That one year was the only gap for Rodden in more than a decade of working on cars driven by Kahne.

Rodden remains under contract to Hendrick Motorsports through the end of this season. The team said he will be assigned other responsibilities.

“I’m looking forward to working with the team for the rest of the season,” Grubb said in a press release. “I enjoy competing in a playoffs environment, and we have tremendous resources at Hendrick Motorsports to pull from. I’m ready to get started this weekend.”

Grubb returned to Hendrick Motorsports in January 2016 as the vehicle production director and was recently promoted to director of competition systems.

Grubb originally joined Hendrick in January 2003, where he worked as the lead race engineer for the No. 48 team through 2006, including four races as interim crew chief during the team’s 2006 championship season when Chad Knaus was suspended to start the season. Johnson won two of those races, including the Daytona 500.

Grubb earned one win in 2007 as crew chief for Casey Mears before being named engineering manager for the No. 5 and 88 teams for 2008.

“Darian is an extremely talented and experienced crew chief,” said Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson in the press release. “Having been back with us for more than 20 months, he knows all of our people and processes. There’s no one more prepared to hit the ground running at this point in the year.”

Grubb was the crew chief for Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2011 when he won five races in the playoffs on the way to winning his third Cup title. From 2012-15, Grubb worked for Joe Gibbs Racing, earning nine wins with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.

 

Even in darkness at Indy, Kasey Kahne’s smile could not be dimmed

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INDIANAPOLIS — After six hours of stop-and-go racing, heart-pounding action at the end of regulation, overtime and a second overtime restart and his body cramping the longer the Brickyard 400 went toward nightfall, Kasey Kahne couldn’t stop smiling.

Winning can have that impact. Especially for a driver who last won 102 races ago at Atlanta in 2014, was eliminated by a crash in five of the eight previous races and faces speculation that he will lose his ride with Hendrick Motorsports after this season even though he has a contract through next year.

But all that didn’t matter after Kahne finally crossed the finish line about 10 minutes before sunset descended on a darkening Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.

He just wanted to celebrate.

First, he had to cross the finish line, ending a race — stopped once by rain and twice by accidents — more than six hours after it started.

“I was actually emotional in the car,’’ Kahne told NBC Sports. “Was just thinking don’t do anything until this car makes it to the finish line because who knows what could happen.’’

He made it but his struggles weren’t over. His body cramped late in the race. Problems started with 10 laps left before the scheduled end when his left calf and leg cramped. After the race restarted, his right leg cramped, then his chest, left ribs and left arm.

The cramping made any type of celebration difficult after the second overtime restart ended in another crash and the end of the race.

“Every time I tried to yell and get excited, my body would cramp,’’ said Kahne, who went to the infield care center for IV fluids.

He felt well enough later that he said he was ready to go racing again that night.

More importantly, Kahne says that’s what he wants to take from this win is to be happy more.

“I love driving the cars,’’ he said. “I love racing. I go and race my sprint car when I have time because I enjoy that stuff. But just be a little more happy in doing it.

“There are a lot of reasons to be happy. After a win like this, hopefully that gets all of us just pointed in the right direction a little bit better, working for each other a little bit more, having faith in each other. I think all those things help.’’

This group needs it. While teammate Jimmie Johnson wins races and championships, Chase Elliott has had strong runs at times and focus on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final full-time Cup season, Kahne can be viewed by some as the other Hendrick driver.

He might not have that title for long. Speculation has been that 19-year-old Xfinity rookie William Byron, who won Saturday’s race at Indy, could move from JR Motorsports to take over the No. 5 car next year. A key could be sponsorship with Great Clips and Farmer’s Bank Insurance both leaving the team after this season.

“Our plans are not set for the 5 car,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said after Sunday’s race. “We’ll see how things shake out, you know, the rest of the year. There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at. We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.’’

Kahne said: “I have a deal with Hendrick through ’18 and we’re trying to figure out how to make all that stuff work.’’

He’s also focused on what more he and his team can do now that they’ll be one of the 16 playoff teams.

Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. again showed they were the class of the field — leading 95 of the first 111 laps — before they tangled on a restart and wrecked. Pit strategy by crew chief Keith Rodden put Kahne in a spot where he caught a break with a caution flag waving when he was on pit road. After the pit cycle under caution, Kahne moved to the lead.

It marked only the third race he’s led this year. He had led 19 laps this season before leading 12 Sunday. With track position critical at Indianapolis, Kahne took advantage to win.

“I think a win like (this) can give myself confidence and momentum, our whole team a boost, which is something that we need,’’ Kahne said. “We work hard, too. But the guys that are winning and running up front, their momentum, their confidence is tough to keep up with when it’s been a couple years.

“When you’re working as hard as you can every single week, putting in tons of hours, you’re away from your family, all this stuff’s going on, (and) you’re not getting results for two years, at some point, there’s no way me as a driver or my team guys are doing what some of the other teams are doing. I mean, it’s just the way that life is, I think. It’s the way that we work.

“So I would hope that this would give us all confidence and give us momentum and push us to, ‘yeah, we’ve been at the shop, giving 100 percent, but now we really are giving 100 percent.’ Now we’re really excited to go to the next race because we didn’t run 15th or 18th or crash today, we actually won the Brickyard 400.’’

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Crew chiefs face many questions with tire options for All-Star Race

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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CONCORD, N.C. — The question for crew chiefs tonight is when to put on the option, softer tires, during the All-Star Race.

Nobody is quite certain.

Among the questions is how beneficial the option tires — marked with green Goodyear lettering — will be. They are intended to be quicker than the regular tire but will wear sooner and likely lose speed deeper into a run.

Each team will have three regular sets and one option set for the four-stage, 70-lap race. If teams save the option tire until the final 10-lap stage, they must start behind all cars on the regular tire.

Another consideration for teams is that format. Only 10 of the 20 cars will advance to the final stage. Those that win any of the first three stages (and are on the lead lap at the end of third stage) advance. The other spots will be based on average finish in the first three stages. That could play into when crew chiefs use the option tires.

“We’re going to see some guys play with it a little bit in the opening stages I would think,’’ said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Brad Keselowski. “We’re hoping we can get it judged from that to understand if you stay out and get the clean air, can you make it work? I think it will be interesting.’’

Ryan Newman will start 15th in the 20-car field, so strategy may be key. That will be crew chief Luke Lambert’s responsibility.

“There is a certain tradeoff point based on the length of the run,’’ Lambert said of how long the option tires are faster. “The key variable that set of tires helps you with is to go fast early in the run, which is when you can make up all the spots and get the track position and potentially drive out in front of the field. I think that is where the tires are going to prove their benefit.’’

Teams got to practice with one set of the option tires Thursday afternoon.

“I felt like our car did not like the softer tire,’’ said Keith Rodden, crew chief for Kasey Kahne. “We were a little tighter and we were going faster into the corner and it’s like we deflected more and hit the splitter and didn’t turn as good.’’

Kyle Larson, who will start on the pole, says the cooler temperatures at night could help the option tires and make them last longer and be the better choice later in the event.

“I was happy in practice that it did seem to have three to four tenths of speed in it,’’ Larson said. “It definitely felt like it had more grip for a few laps and at night time I think it’s going to be even better. I don’t know, but I think that the option tire will be more impactful when the sun goes down. We’ve just got to wait and see.’’

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2016 Season in Review: Kasey Kahne

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Kasey Kahne

CREW CHIEF: Keith Rodden

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports

POINTS: 17th

WINS: 0

LAPS LED: 0

TOP 5s: 3 (same as previous two seasons) 

TOP 10s: 13 (most since 2013)

POLES: 0

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Kahne completed the most laps of any driver in the series with 10,355 and also improved his average finish (15.6) from last season (18.1) … Started to show improvement late in the season by reeling off seven top-10 finishes in the last 12 races.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Went winless and failed to make the Chase for the second consecutive season. Also earned single digit top-five finishes for the third time in last five years … For the first time in his career, Kahne failed to lead a lap during the season and had two DNFs.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2017: Kahne enters his seventh season at Hendrick Motorsports still seeking his first championship. He is also looking to win for the first time in three years.