Kevin Meendering

Indy is last chance for bubble drivers on Cup playoff quest

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INDIANAPOLIS — On the cusp of failing to make the Cup playoffs for the first time in his career, Jimmie Johnson prefers to look at what he could accomplish Sunday with a win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It would be a heck of a story to tie Jeff (Gordon) with five (wins) here and to come through a drought and all the things that we all know,” Johnson said of an 84-race winless streak that dates back to 2017. “To have all that come to a conclusion and lock myself into the playoffs would be one hell of a story. Hopefully, that is the story.”

Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Newman are battling for the final two playoff spots in today’s race at Indy (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Suarez and Newman. Suarez holds the final playoff spot via a tiebreaker on Newman. Johnson is 18 points behind Suarez and Newman.

That Suarez and Newman are tied in points adds a layer to their duel. Newman spun in last week’s Southern 500 with Suarez closely on Newman’s left rear.

Everything kind of cycles in our sport and what comes around goes around,” Newman said. “I don’t think he meant to turn me around, but he did turn me around. It is just racing. I get it. Whether he plowed through me like (Matt) Kenseth did to (Joey) Logano (at Martinsville in 2015) or just took the air off me or whatever, it is racing. I don’t have any intentions going into this race other than to do the best that I can for our team.”

Suarez contends there was no contact between the cars at Darlington Raceway.

“I have a lot of respect for him,” Suarez said of Newman. “He is a very aggressive driver. One of the most aggressive. People know that. Sometimes we race hard and sometimes you know what the limits are and sometimes we push a little bit hard. It was just a racing deal. I didn’t mean to spin him out. I didn’t mean to wreck him. But I wanted to pass him.”

Suarez also faces the possibility of competing against Bowyer, his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, for a playoff spot.

“Clint and I, we are good friends and we know that if we can help each other, we will, but at the same time we will race hard,” Suarez said. “That is what we do. We’re smart. He’s got plenty of experience, and I’m not dumb.

“I know what I have to do, and he knows what he has to do. We are going to go out there to do what we do best and try to beat each other but, at the same time, without trying to kill each other. Hopefully things work out in a good way for both of us.”

Bowyer, who is coming off top-10 finishes the past two races, says that is what his team can do if it can avoid the issues that have plagued it this season.

“I think Darlington was a snapshot of our capabilities,” Bowyer said. “I have said it time and time again, when we race to our capabilities we are a (top-10) car. A lot of things go into play on that. I feel like we have raced inside the single digits several times this year and more often than not struggled to get the finish and manage track position.”

Johnson and the No. 48 team know Bowyer’s pain. Johnson’s team has struggled much of this season. That lack of performance led Hendrick Motorsports to replace Kevin Meendering with Cliff Daniels as crew chief in late July.

Johnson enters this weekend with seven consecutive finishes outside the top 15. His performance last weekend at Darlington was his best in recent weeks. He was fast in practice, qualified sixth, scored points in both stages and was in the top five when he was collected in a crash that he couldn’t avoid. His team was headed for one of its best performances of the season.

“We’ve had plenty of bad luck, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “Last weekend we did perform well through practice and qualified well and ran well. We’re getting there. What I have learned through this two- or three-year drought and difficult time, is just how important the team is.

“I’ve known it. I’ve lived it. And, I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing teams. And, I just didn’t realize how fragile it was until I got involved and had to start building that and help select the right people in place to build that team. It’s been an interesting journey. And through it all, I’ve learned a ton. I really have. And, I think we’re in a spot now that everybody can see where the hard work has gone and that we’re starting to show up and perform.”

But even if Johnson’s team has a flawless performance Sunday, there’s no guarantee Johnson will be among the 16 drivers to race for a championship.

“I have been able to work through some really tough situations and come out on top over the years,” Johnson said. “There are no guarantees on what happens here this weekend, but I do feel like if that opportunity presents itself, the experience I have will help me stay calm and help me do the right things in that moment. So, it helps me sleep better, absolutely, knowing what I’ve pulled off in the past. It helps with my confidence rolling into this weekend.”

It was 2016 when Johnson didn’t have the best car in the championship race in Miami but circumstances fell his way and he won his record-tying seventh title. That crown came a day after Suarez won the Xfinity championship.

That Xfinity title has been something Suarez has reflected upon this week as he prepared to race for a playoff spot.

“I have had a lot of flashbacks from that weekend,” Suarez said. “I feel like I was able to handle that weekend extremely well. I feel like I work pretty well under pressure, and I have been that way since I was racing go karts and was trying to find sponsors and trying to win races to be able to continue and go on to the next one. It feels good. It feels good to be here and good to be in this position and hopefully just like we did in 2016 we can end up the weekend on the good side of things.”

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Hendrick Motorsports makes crew chief change to Jimmie Johnson’s team

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Hendrick Motorsports is changing Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief with five races left in the regular season and Johnson outside a playoff spot.

Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday that Cliff Daniels has replaced Kevin Meendering, who was in his first year as the No. 48 team’s crew chief, effective immediately.

Johnson, a seven-time series champion, is in danger of missing NASCAR’s postseason for the first time since the format debuted in 2004. Johnson enters Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 12 points out of the final playoff spot.

Johnson is coming off a 15th-place finish this past weekend at Pocono Raceway that included his first stage victory of the season. Johnson has not had more than two consecutive top-10 finishes this season. Since placing third at Daytona, he has been 30th (Kentucky), 30th (New Hampshire) and 15th (Pocono).

Daniels, 31, was Johnson’s race engineer in 2016 when Johnson won his most recent Cup title. Daniels joined the team in December 2014 after being Tony Stewart’s race engineer the previous two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing. He moved into Hendrick Motorsports’ competition systems group after the 2018 season and rejoined the No. 48 team as a race engineer at Sonoma Raceway.

“We have great confidence in Cliff’s ability to win races with Jimmie and the team,” said Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick in a statement. “He’s a natural leader and tremendously talented from both a technical and communication standpoint. Cliff’s familiarity with Jimmie and the No. 48 team culture will benefit us a ton. He will bring the spark that’s been our missing ingredient.”

Meendering will remain with Hendrick Motorsports in a senior competition role.

“Kevin is a talent,” Hendrick said in a statement. “We have areas where he can make a major impact and help all four of our teams be successful. Everyone thinks the world of him, and we plan to keep him as a key member of our organization for as long as he wants to be here.”

Said Johnson in a statement from the team: “Cliff has really shined since he came back to the 48. When he returned, there was an immediate change in the team dynamic that all of us felt. We’ve worked together for a long time, have a ton of mutual respect and a shared vision. I have no doubt the strong connection and working relationship is going to pay dividends right away.

“I’m so grateful to Kevin. He’s a truly awesome person who I think very, very highly of. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with him in his new role. He’s a brilliant guy and will make all of us better.”

Jimmie Johnson takes step forward with top 10 but says ‘we need more’

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Jimmie Johnson admits work remains but he could say it after a top-10 finish Sunday at ISM Raceway.

Johnson, whose struggles in the first two races with the new package have been well-chronicled, placed eighth Sunday. It was his best finish since a seventh-place run at Talladega Superspeedway last fall.

“Yeah, definitely a strong performance,” the seven-time Cup champion said Sunday. “We need more. We need to find more, but on a short track where grip is so important our guys did a nice job all weekend long of bringing a little bit more. Excited about that. We weathered the storm on two tires, on four and ended up with a nice top 10.”

Crew chief Kevin Meendering twice called for two-tire stops to help Johnson get track position in the 312-lap race.

Johnson was running 16th when Meendering called for a two-tire stop on lap 41. Johnson restarted third.

The team changed two tires again on a Lap 196 pit stop that put Johnson in the lead. He fell back to third by the time the caution came out for teammate Chase Elliott’s spin on Lap 219. Johnson’s team changed four tires. He restarted 12th behind some cars that took no tires or two tires. Johnson worked his way up to eighth by the finish.

For those who viewed this run as a “victory” for a team that had placed 19th and 24th the past two weeks, Johnson didn’t see it that way.

“No, it’s not a victory, but it’s definitely a solid day for the Ally Chevrolet,” said Johnson, winless in his last 63 Cup starts. “These guys have been working so hard at Hendrick Motorsports to get us more and more and we took a good step in the right direction. 

“I even think at Vegas we were better than where we finished. Once we lost track position, we struggled the second half of the race. Atlanta was terrible, can’t say anything different there.  

“We are learning each week and I still think we have some catching up to do, but certainly a solid performance. Kevin called a great race, it was really tricky with strategy, two tires, four tires, our pit crew had to adjust mid-pit stop one time and go from four to two and everybody responded really well.”  

Bump & Run: Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to be worried?

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How alarmed should Jimmie Johnson be after finishing outside the top 15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas for the first time in five seasons?

Nate Ryan: It has to be somewhat unsettling, even though so much was unknown for the seven-time champion entering this season. Getting acclimated to the new rules, crew chief and sponsor simultaneously is a new experience for the 17-year veteran. It could be simply a matter of getting settled. But at 43 and coming off the first winless season of his career, Johnson surely is feeling some urgency. He wants to prove last year was an anomaly, but so far 2019 has been a regression.

Dustin Long: There should be some concern but it should be tempered. There’s little time during the West Coast swing to update cars based on what is learned at the previous race. This just shows the team it has some work to do. If this team is still running like this by Kansas in May, then the level of concern will increase significantly.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be worried. He has an average running position of 17.4 through three races and the only reason he has a top 10 is because most of the field wrecked at Daytona. He finished two laps down in Atlanta and he wasn’t part of any incidents. If we get through Martinsville and Johnson hasn’t earned another top 10, then it’s time to full on panic.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though his winless streak now stands at 62 races (dating back to spring 2017 at Dover), it’s not time for Johnson to push the panic button just yet. If he gets to say, Bristol, and he’s still struggling, then there may be pause for concern. But remember, just one win puts him in the playoffs and he can build from there. He’s likely still learning communication and unique nuances with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, so I’m not overly worried just yet.

With consecutive victories and a strong showing by Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, how seriously should Team Penske be taken as the team to beat?

Nate Ryan: It’s only two races, but the organization’s flair for adaptability is undeniable, and Penske seems to have as strong a handle on the new rules as any team in Cup. If Ryan Blaney’s team can shake off its error-prone ways, Penske could have all of its drivers eligible for the playoffs before many teams have a guaranteed berth.

Dustin Long: Team Penske is until someone beats them, but let’s not get too carried away with what they’ve done at Atlanta and Las Vegas. While Brad Keselowski has scored top 10s in both events, he’s done that in each of the past two years at those races. Joey Logano would have the same streak had he not placed 23rd at Atlanta this year. The point is they’ve been strong early in the season before and they’ve shown the ability to excel with this new package.

Daniel McFadin: Penske is the top team right now. Dating back to last season’s Southern 500 they have won eight of the last 15 races and the championship. The fact the new Mustang model hasn’t impeded them is even more impressive. If they’re not up front in Phoenix, I expect them to be the team to beat at Auto Club Speedway where Penske hasn’t placed a driver outside the top 10 in the last four races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Right now, they ARE the team to beat. Yes, teammates Ryan Blaney (15th place in the standings) and Paul Menard (20th place) are struggling, but I expect both to get back on track in the next few races, particularly by Martinsville. And don’t forget, with Logano and Keselowski are now both locked into the playoffs, Team Penske can potentially allocate more resources to Blaney and Menard to get their cars working better and stronger.

Despite flashes of promise, Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing have one driver between them ranked in the top 20  in points. Is this an indication that the new rules package is less of an “equalizer” than some had predicted?

Nate Ryan: It seems more a reflection on the teams and their relatively inexperienced drivers than on the rules. Mistakes (several in the pits) by RCR and JTG Daugherty have undermined the strength they’ve shown at times.

Dustin Long: NASCAR stated that it was their intent with this rules package that the best teams still would be the ones to beat. Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing are not the best teams. RCR has shown speed in practice and qualifying but still has to figure out things for the race. The penalty to Austin Dillon’s pit crew didn’t help at Las Vegas. JTG Daugherty is building their own chassis and refining that takes time.

Daniel McFadin: I don’t think so, Las Vegas was the first race with the full package. RCR showed plenty of speed all weekend, but Austin Dillon’s effort was hurt by a pit penalty. We won’t know what the full potential of this package and its benefits to teams until Auto Club or at least Texas.

Jerry Bonkowski: Let’s not forget that RCR is down to only two teams this season and JTG Daugherty really hasn’t improved much. If anything, it’s in another growth mode. So, lack of success for both teams this early in the season is not entirely a surprise. And unfortunately, it’s not likely to get much better any time soon. Sure, Austin Dillon has looked strong at times this season, but he can’t carry RCR or partners JTG and Richard Petty Motorsports on his shoulders. And while the teams may be struggling with the new rules package, it’s simply going to be a matter of time, patience and trial and error before they start to make any significant progress.

There were more accidents on pit road than on the track at Atlanta and Las Vegas. What’s your take on the lack of cautions for accidents in the last two races?

Nate Ryan: It’s surprising and also a little unsettling. With the new rules delivering additional downforce and lower horsepower, there were concerns that the degree of difficulty might be lessened. Hopefully the lack of crashes isn’t indicative of that emerging trend because the cars need to be hard to drive.

Dustin Long: It’s simple. Sometimes they wreck (Daytona) and sometimes they don’t (past two weeks). Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: We are fully entrenched in an era of a lack of attrition and the vanishing act of debris cautions. I expect cautions to roar back in Phoenix with its short-track characteristics. 

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR is giving fans what they want in terms of closer racing. That’s a good thing. Teams are still getting used to the new rules package. It’s an evolutionary process, with drivers still feeling their way out on track. Once they get a bit more confident or more familiar with the new package, it’s likely you’ll see more aggressive driving – which likely means we’ll start seeing more cautions for accidents, as a result.

Bump & Run: Was Martin Truex Jr. right to be upset with lapped cars at Atlanta?

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Did Martin Truex Jr. have a point in complaining so much about lapped cars getting out of his way, or doth he complain too much, and that’s racin’?

Nate Ryan: In context, when considering that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a straightaway on anyone he was racing for position and was the only roadblock between Truex and race winner Brad Keselowski, the 2017 series champion’s qualms are justified. As well documented in the most recent race at Martinsville Speedway, Truex races cleanly to deserve getting breaks from others – but the problem is the favors rarely are returned because there’s no obligation to reciprocate.

Stenhouse was the first driver a lap down, and in an era of unlimited overtime restarts, it’s hard to live with just yielding positions when circumstances can change so quickly. Look at Keselowski, who went from being a lap down to leading in less than 10 laps because of some quirky scoring twists from a yellow flag. Truex does have a point … but at the same time, that’s racin’.

Dustin Long: It’s a courtesy that drivers move over. There is nothing in the rule book that says a car a lap or more down must move over. That said, get in the way of the leaders enough times and it will come back to haunt you when you need the help. Was Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doing this as payback for something that happened earlier? Or was he just being bullheaded? Either way, Stenhouse’s actions will lead to a response on the track by Truex someday.

Daniel McFadin: I think it’s a fair complaint, especially when the checkered flag is within 20 laps. Truex said his spotter had communicated the urgency to Stenhouse’s repeatedly without success. It’s yet another chapter in the saga of Stenhouse making his competitors unhappy.

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes, I believe Truex had a very valid point and it’s something NASCAR will have to address if it continues. If things aren’t fixed by Fontana, and drivers can’t police themselves, I believe NASCAR will step in. I understand hard racing, but if a driver is not on the lead lap and is far from getting back on the lead lap, he should be penalized if he is intentionally blocking those on the lead lap and with a potential chance to win the race.

 

Were the rash of mistakes in the pits at Atlanta just drivers and teams shaking off rust, or a harbinger of what’s to come in 2019 with the new rules likely putting an emphasis on track position?

Nate Ryan: I think it’s mostly the former. If anything, I’d expect there will be fewer pit mistakes this season because the downsides outweigh the rewards too greatly. Kyle Larson’s slow rebound from a speeding penalty underscored how difficult it can be getting through traffic with a strong car. It might make sense for teams to build in an extra buffer on their speed monitoring systems to ensure they avoid penalties.

Dustin Long: It was sloppy work on pit road by many teams. Call it a bad day at the office. Just like one shouldn’t judge the new rules package based off the Atlanta race, one shouldn’t assume the rest of the season will be as error-filled on pit road based on what happened at Atlanta.

Daniel McFadin: It could well be a sign of things to come. Two of the pit road penalties for speeding were on front-row starters Aric Almirola and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., two drivers who have two Cup wins apiece but who don’t start up front often. Any time a driver unfamiliar with racing in the lead and pitting from the lead is put in that situation, I expect them to push the limit to stay there. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think it’s more an example of drivers getting used to the new rules and how they impact track position. I give drivers 5-7 races tops – probably more like 3-4 races – and they’ll be up to speed on the nuances related to the new rules.

  

No top 10s for Hendrick Motorsports and a very mediocre race for Jimmie Johnson. Should the team be worried it might be even further out to lunch than it was for much of the 2018 season?

Nate Ryan: It’s too early to push the panic button, but someone’s thumb definitely is poised right above it in case the team fails to record a top 10 or run competitively at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Dustin Long: Crew chief Greg Ives expressed to me after the race that the Hendrick cars need to find more speed. It is a concern that Jimmie Johnson hasn’t had a top-10 finish at a 1.5-mile track since last year’s Coca-Cola 600. Certainly Hendrick Motorsports can’t be pleased with Sunday’s results, but let’s see what this organization does this week at Las Vegas.

Daniel McFadin: It was the first race with the new rules, but I’m sure the Hendrick shop is feeling a little bit hotter this week. Dominating Daytona 500 qualifying was impressive but everything after that is another animal and it’s a bit surprising Hendrick appeared to trip over themselves with all four cars. But you can’t really pass judgement on anybody until we’re through at least Martinsville.

Jerry Bonkowski: Between the new rules and the shuffling of crew chiefs within HMS, the first few races are going to be a learning experience, just as they were last year with the then-new Chevrolet Camaro. Jimmie has to build the same kind of communication with Kevin Meendering as he did with Chad Knaus. Remember, JJ did win the Clash race and he finished 9th at Daytona. Yes, he’s riding a 61-race winless streak and finished a career-worst 14th last season, but the seven-time champ has not forgotten how to win races. If he wins at, say, Las Vegas, Phoenix or Fontana, people are quickly going to start saying “Jimmie’s back.”