Rick Hendrick

Never give up: Corey LaJoie keeps chasing his dream

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The text came at a late hour.

“You want to be a crew chief?” Jimmie Johnson asked.

It was five years ago and Corey LaJoie’s racing career was in flux. He had run five Xfinity and two Truck races in 2014. He would go without a start in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks in 2015. Instead, LaJoie spent 2015 as David Mayhew’s crew chief in what is now the ARCA West Series.

Johnson happened to see LaJoie interviewed during a broadcast of Mayew’s dominating ARCA West win at Evergreen Speedway and was surprised that LaJoie was not racing.

“I thought maybe he was ready to pursue the crew chief side of life,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I thought, man, we’ve got a huge system at Hendrick, we’ve got (an Xfinity) team, we’ve got engineering roles we need people in all the time and it’s rare you find a racer, someone who grows up racing, that heads down that path.”

Johnson sent LaJoie crew chief Chad Knaus’ number and told LaJoie to call.

He did.

“What do you want to do?” Knaus asked LaJoie.

TOUGH PATH

There never has been any doubt that LaJoie, 28, wanted to race.

“I’ve never wanted to not do it from the time I was 7 years old and my dad started to make me build my own race cars,” LaJoie, son of two-time Xfinity champion Randy LaJoie, told NBC Sports.

He wanted to make my path hard enough all the way through the times where he knew opportunities were going to dry up and even when you’re not in the best cars. The resilience that you have to learn, it breaks you down to the foundation of why you want to do it. If your foundation is based off of, well because my dad hired some good people and I won a lot of go-kart races, that ain’t what’s going to keep you going. It’s the fire, the feeling you did this with your buddies or your team and it’s because you were the better man that day.”

LaJoie’s ability earned accolades. He was selected to the NASCAR Next class in 2011 and ’12. That program spotlighted top drivers age 21 and under on a path to NASCAR. Among the drivers selected either of those years with LaJoie were Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto.

But sponsorship issues interceded and LaJoie’s opportunities became more infrequent. He ran five ARCA races in 2013, winning three times but that didn’t lead to any opportunities.

Instead of fading away, LaJoie accepted a role as a crew chief for the ARCA West team in 2015, flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to California on a regular basis.

“It’s easy to … get beat down because you don’t get a lot of validation for what you’re doing inside the car and outside the car,” LaJoie said. “So I do remind myself of when I was flying to Bakersfield, making 1,200 bucks to crew chief a West car. I remind myself that because pursuing that with my time and my whole heart was what allowed me to stay in the fold to be a race car driver. I keep coming back to a couple of conversations with Chad Kanus and Jimmie.”

“I CAN’T HANG IT UP”

Knaus discussed the possibility of a job for LaJoie at JR Motorsports, the Xfinity team affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports, as a car chief or mechanic.

“I slept on it and tossed and turned and called him back and said I appreciate the effort,” LaJoie said. “I don’t want to give up trying to be a race car driver. I don’t know why because I don’t have any driving stuff going on at all. I can’t hang it up yet.”

LaJoie admits there was more he could have done to race. He didn’t reach out to companies for sponsorship.

“I was kind of bitter,” LaJoie said. “I was over the whole firing off cold calls. … I wasn’t full court press trying to find money to be a race car driver.”

A sponsor reached out to LaJoie and wanted to help get back in a car. It led to a 10-race effort with JGL Racing in 2016. LaJoie failed to finish four races and had two top-10 results.

After the season, LaJoie was “hounding” BK Racing car owner Ron Devine to drive one of his Cup cars in 2017.

“I’ll mow your grass, whatever you want me to do,” LaJoie said he told Devine. “You can give me $200 a race. I just want to drive your car.”

LaJoie asked Johnson if he would call Devine and help convince Devine to sign LaJoie.

“He really deserves a chance,” Johnson said he told Devine.

Shortly after Johnson’s call, Devine told LaJoie they could do a deal. But Devine told LaJoie that if he didn’t make the Daytona 500, there wouldn’t be enough money to run LaJoie’s team.

“I didn’t tell him I had zero drafting experience,” LaJoie said.

LaJoie made the Daytona 500 and ran 31 more events for BK Racing, an underfunded team, that season. He had one top-20 finish. LaJoie ran 23 races in 2018 for TriStar Motorsports, another underfunded team. He had one top-20 finish.

Last year, LaJoie moved to Go Fas Racing, a step up among the small teams but still one that has limited resources. LaJoie scored two top-10 finishes and six top-20 results.

A HEARTFELT LETTER

LaJoie’s results do not stand out, but one has to factor the teams he was with and the financial challenges they faced. He’s pondered whether it would be better to run with a more competitive team in the Xfinity Series and go for wins vs. running in the pack in Cup. Each time he thinks running Cup is better.

“The guys that I race around any given Sunday, they run 24th to 28th and are guys that are capable of winning Xfinity races,” LaJoie said. “I’m learning the same tricks of the trade, how to move around, car control on Sunday that I would be on Saturday.”

Even with those results, LaJoie has not lost his confidence.

“The reason why I didn’t give (driving) up, you just think back to times growing up and times you were racing Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, the guys that are making a name for themselves and are successful,” LaJoie said.

“I can remember vividly races where you are in the zone and I am better than them. There were times they would do the same thing back to me. I never thought I wasn’t capable of doing it at the highest level. I never gave that up.

“There’s times, sometimes a string of six, seven weeks in a row you’re wondering what in the hell am I doing, do I know how to drive a race car? But then you’ve just got to go back to those times where you didn’t have the best car and you had to move around and you had to find different areas to get after it and you rememberer that feeling of accomplishment you had and that was kind of what kept my flame going of not giving up.”

It is that confidence that LaJoie, who will start at the rear in Sunday’s Daytona 500 because he’s going to a backup car, looks to the future.

He is one of several drivers whose contracts expire after this season. Among those are a former champion (Brad Keselowski) and four other drivers who won Cup races last year (Larson, Blaney, Bowman and Erik Jones). And there are others who will be free agents after this season who finished higher in points than LaJoie, who was 29th last year.

With that in mind, LaJoie knows he needs to do something different to stand out.

He wrote a letter to car owner Rick Hendrick, seeking to be considered for the No. 48 car, which is open with Jimmie Johnson saying this will be his final full-time Cup season. LaJoie gave Hendrick the letter at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony last month.

“He talked about how he got started, and I told him when he handed it to me that ‘You’ve been a great model for NASCAR, I’ve watched you and you’re clean cut and you’ve done a good job,’ ” Hendrick told NBC Sports.

Hendrick said he never received a letter like LaJoie’s.

“This was the first time I’ve gotten a letter from the heart,” Hendrick said. “I’ve gotten letters and phones calls, usually from agents. It was really a heartfelt letter (from LaJoie) and it was really personal.

“I was impressed with him before and am more impressed after.”

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Long: Will 500 be Great American demolition derby (again)?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Let’s be frank. Blocking will continue at Daytona and Talladega. It will happen in Thursday’s Cup qualifying races and it will take place in the Daytona 500.

And yes, there will be wrecks because of it.

“Product of what happens when you get out front because you know if you can keep the lead, nobody can pass, so you just try to do what you can with all the blocks,” Kyle Busch said after he was blocked by Joey Logano before they made contact and crashed in Sunday’s Busch Clash.

Blocking has become hairier since the larger rear spoiler was added to cars last year. That gives trailing cars an aerodynamic boost to close faster on to the back of the leading car.

The increased closing speed decreases the reaction time a driver has to block. Even if they defend the spot, they often force the car behind to slow quickly, creating an accordion affect that can lead to an incident deeper in the field.

Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski collide in Turn 4 during Sunday’s Busch Clash. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

“By the time the spotter sees (a trailing car making a move), keys the mic, says it … it’s too late,” two-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports after Sunday’s Clash. “Live to race another lap in my opinion, but, hey, if they want to keep crashing, I just hope I’m not in it.

“There’s no guarantee that the guy is going to clear you. Let them get beside you, who cares? You’ve got a chance to stay up there, but it’s when we chop each other’s nose and stuff like that, you just continue to see it with a lot of the same guys who do the same things and they’re not successful with it.”

Brad Keselowski was livid at Logano after Keselowski was collected in the incident between Logano and Busch.

“You would think these guys would be smarter than that,” Keselowski said. “We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. … It’s the same thing. Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh’. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes.”

Busch acknowledges there is a benefit to blocking, which is why drivers will do it despite the risks.

“If you can get the block done enough times, then that bubble of air (between the cars) pushes you out … and that’s what (Logano) was trying to do, but I was too close,” Busch said. “I was on him. You’ve got to accept the repercussions in those situations when you throw that many (blocks).”

Understandably there’s some concern about blocking after what happened in the Clash and recent Daytona 500s. Thirty-six of the 40 cars in last year’s Daytona 500 were in accidents, according to the NASCAR race report. In the 2018 race, 27 of the 40 cars were listed as in accidents. In the 2017 race, 33 of the 40 cars were listed as in accidents.

Put another way, 80% of the cars in the last three Daytona 500s were involved in an accident.

The Great American Race has become a demolition derby.

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Overlooked in Erik Jones’ dramatic last-lap victory in the Busch Clash was how teammate Denny Hamlin pushed him for most of the final lap, a la tandem racing — which was prevalent at Daytona and Talladega a decade ago until NASCAR rules made it unfeasible to do.

Teams started experimenting with tandem drafting last year but could only do it for part of a lap. A few teams tried it in Cup practice last weekend and saw benefits.

Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin in a tandem draft on the final lap of the Busch Clash at Daytona. (AP Photo/Darryl Graham)

“I think it’s typically a straightaway or half a lap that it seems to work,” Byron said of the tandem draft before the Clash. “Based on the radius of the corners at Daytona, it’s kind of hard to carry it through off the corners, especially as fast as we’re going, but I think there’s definitely some pushing that will influence the race.

“That’s what it’s going to take for the race win, honestly. I think it’s going to be about blocking that run and forcing them to push you and hoping they push you out and you guys can race it out. I think it’s going to come down to pushing, looking at how guys are doing it in practice. It’s only going to get more aggressive in the race.”

Hamlin was a lap down in the Clash so his only motivation was to stay locked on the back of Jones’ car and push his teammate to the win in the exhibition race.

Jones said the tandem is starting to return because “the cars just punch such a big hole in the air, you can get all the way to people’s bumpers with pretty minimal effort from both drivers.  As long as the lead guy gives you a little bit of a brake drag, you lock on, you stay locked on for a long time.

“If you’re in a situation late with a restart, you could see some tandem racing.”

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Daytona International Speedway made the surprise announcement Monday that the 2021 Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 14.

NASCAR has not announced the 2021 schedule and is not expected to do so until April. But with Daytona already selling tickets for the 2021 Daytona 500, don’t expect the date to suddenly change.

That leads to a bigger question. What happens to the Busch Clash?

Easy, it’s the weekend before the Daytona 500. Yes, but the Super Bowl will be Feb. 7 in Tampa, which is about two hours from the track. Maybe it could work running the Clash in the day and finishing well before the Super Bowl begins.

Or, with the possibility of bold changes for the 2021 schedule, would it make sense to shorten Daytona Speedweeks and have the Clash on Wednesday night, four days before the 500? That leads into the qualifying races on Thursday, Truck race on Friday, Xfinity race on Saturday and the Daytona 500 on Sunday. Certainly, there could be other options. Shortening Speedweeks has been a topic discussed before. 

Another question, though, might be is the Clash still necessary? With NASCAR seeking to help owners save money, has the Clash outlived its usefulness?

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David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, was adamant in an interview Friday on “The Morning Drive” that his cars wouldn’t be a contender for the Daytona 500 pole.

“I wouldn’t put us at the top of the board for qualifying at Daytona,” Wilson told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It’s just not going to happen.

“I don’t know that many people appreciate what it takes to sit on the front row of the Daytona 500. I have an immense amount of respect for what the Hendrick camp does to that end and for what (Ford engine builder) Doug Yates does. It’s a massive effort just to sit there. We’ve been very intentional to focus our time and our resources and our energy on building cars that race well and that goes for the Daytona 500 and frankly goes for the rest of the season.”

The result last year was that Toyotas won 19 races and the championship but only four poles.

Even with such a strategy, what happened Sunday was interesting. Toyotas showed more speed. Toyotas were fifth (Denny Hamlin), sixth (Kyle Busch), ninth (Christopher Bell) and 10th (Erik Jones).

It was a marked significant improvement from last year. Only one Toyota was in the top 10 in qualifying at Daytona or Talladega last year.

“I think it goes back to Talladega last fall,” said Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, about the increase in speed. “We didn’t feel like we had as good of cars as we needed as a group.”

Jones qualified 11th at Talladega in the playoffs last year. No other Toyota was in the top 15 that day.

We kind of found something we thought we could tweak on in the off‑season and improve,” Gayle said. “The faster cars win, right? They may not always win, but the numbers are going to show they win. They’re going to be in better positions in the race to use runs and clear somebody when they’re faster.”

It will be worth watching the Toyota cars in the qualifying races Thursday. Handling remains key at Daytona. The question will be did Toyota sacrifice handling in race traffic for single-car speed? If not, then watch out for those cars this week.

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Hendrick Motorsports saw its streak of five consecutive Daytona 500 poles end Sunday but the engine shop’s streak continued.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (right) celebrates his Daytona 500 pole with fellow front-row starter Alex Bowman. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Hendrick Motorsports supplies engines to JTG Daugherty Racing. So when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. grabbed the pole for Daytona 500, he ended Hendrick’s streak of having its cars on the pole but not the engine shop’s streak.

“I want to see those guys do well but they did a little better,” Hendrick said, laughing before he finished his sentence.

“Being on the front row and having them all up there is a great job for our company. I’m real proud of those guys (at JTG). They work hard. They’re good friends. We’ve worked with them on chassis and motors.”

Hendrick Motorsports will still have one of its drivers on the front row for the 500, though. Alex Bowman will start alongside Stenhouse.

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After being let down in the search for sponsorship often, Bubba Wallace is less prone to get excited about possible deals as Richard Petty Motorsports looks to fill out space on the No. 43 car this year.

Asked how optimistic he was of those gaps being filled, Wallace said: “I don’t carry optimism anymore. I’m just a realistic person, so we’ll get though Daytona and go on to Vegas and see how it goes.”

As for why he’s a realist instead of an optimist in regards to sponsorship, Wallace said: “I’ve been let down so many times in my life with sponsorship efforts, so just realistic. I told everyone at RPM, you work your tails off in the office but don’t call me with updates, call me when it’s done.”

Bubba Wallace seeks to recapture the magic of his runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Wallace’s runner-up finish in the 2018 Daytona 500 didn’t lead to the swell of sponsorships that some thought could happen. But Wallace has experienced that often.

“They told me winning a Truck race would get me sponsorship,” he said. “I’m still looking for a sponsor. That was (2013). You can carry optimism for that long, it will kill you.”

Wallace says his focus is on each day.

“It’s a new day every single day,” he said. “You try to give your 110% effort each and every day. Whatever happens, happens. If it doesn’t, it wasn’t meant to be.”

But Wallace does admit to having good vibes at Daytona. 

“I do get excited coming to the speedway stuff just because our program has been so solid,” he said. “For all the small teams, you get excited about these because anybody can win these races.”

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The World Series of Asphalt Racing at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida features nine nights of racing through Saturday, including seven nights of Super Late Models.

Fifteen-year-old Sammy Smith won opening night last Friday driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Super Late Model team. It was Smith’s first start with the team.

Busch will get to race with Smith next week at Las Vegas when Busch jumps into a Super Late Model and that will give a better chance to gauge Smith.

“I’m looking forward to that,” Busch said of the Super Late Model race in Las Vegas. “But what’s going to turn (Smith) and make him viable or successful to move on to the next level is going to be the same as it was with all the rest of the drivers. If they are running up front, if they are competitive and winning races, parts aren’t falling off the cars and cars are prepared well and they are fast, that will obviously show that they’ve got the opportunity to get to the next level.”

On Saturday night, the Super Late Model winner was Jesse Love, who, like Smith, is 15 years old and a Toyota Racing Development driver.

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Axalta extends sponsorship agreement with Hendrick to 2027

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Axalta has agreed to a five-year extension that will take its sponsorship through the 2027 season, Hendrick Motorsports announced Monday.

Axalta’s contract was to go through the 2022 season. Axalta will sponsor William Byron in 22 races this season and teammate Alex Bowman in three races.

MORE: How William Byron went from Legend to NASCAR

As part of the new agreement, Axalta will be the primary sponsor of the No. 24 team for 14 Cup races each year beginning in 2021.

“It’s difficult to put into words what Axalta has meant to our company,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement from the team. “They took a chance on us nearly three decades ago, and it’s been an incredible relationship ever since.

“Axalta and the No. 24 team are synonymous, so it’s fitting to see that connection solidified for the next eight seasons. William is a tremendous talent who is going to do exciting things behind the wheel for a long, long time. We are truly fortunate to continue this great partnership far into the future.”

 

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to friend

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The record books list Jimmie Johnson as a seven-time Cup champion.

But they are wrong.

They credit him with 83 Cup victories.

Again, they are wrong.

Truth is, Johnson has never won in Cup.

Blaise Alexander always beat Johnson across the finish line.

Alexander and Johnson got to be close friends when they raced against each other in what is now the Busch Series. As good of friends as they were, it made them want to beat the other that much more.

Alexander was killed in a crash during an ARCA race Oct. 4, 2001 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was 25. Earlier that night, Johnson qualified for his first Cup race.

When Johnson drove his Busch car that weekend, one of his crew members, who was also was friends with Alexander, drew flames and Alexander’s initials on the front left bumper of Johnson’s car. That way Alexander would always cross the finish line before Johnson.

Johnson’s cars have paid homage to Alexander since. For a while, the design was drawn on to each car with a marker. Eventually, a decal was made and affixed in the same spot below the left front headlight sticker. Later, the tail number for the Hendrick plane that crashed and killed 10 was added to Alexander’s tribute.

During Thursday’s press conference, Johnson’s emotions remained steady as he explained the reasons why 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season.

But when asked about Alexander and how next year would mark the final year of the tribute on Johnson’s cars at NASCAR tracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson was taken aback.

He closed his eyes briefly, turned his head and was momentarily silent before saying, “wow” and shook his head.

“He was a very special friend,” Johnson said, taking a deep breath.

2. More of the same in 2020?

With the industry’s focus on the Next Gen car in 2021, one of the concessions is that there won’t be as many rule changes for next season.

In previous years, if a team or manufacturer was behind in one season, they could count on rule changes to possibly give them a better chance the next season. That won’t be the case next year.

So it leads to the question of what is to prevent a repeat of this season with Joe Gibbs Racing winning more than half the Cup races and putting three of its four cars in the championship race and winning the title?

Yes, Chevrolet has an updated car and there are some wind-tunnel testing restrictions, but will it be enough to top Toyota and Gibbs? Or will next year be more of the same?

“I would just say it’s all about optimizing all of your testing time and your simulation time to give the drivers the best chance of unloading quick, adjusting quickly and then executing in the race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet. “I think that’s really what it’s about. There’s limited on-track testing, so it really comes down heavily to simulation, driver loop activity.  

“There is some aero testing. We’re limited, so we have to make sure every minute of those aero tests is productive, so that’s what we’ll do as a team. We have three major teams and we have a number of affiliates that we’ll use that to our best advantage. But it’s going to be about execution.”

Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, said he feels his teams can continue progressing with the package that will be used again next year.

“The rules changes for 2019, it took us a while to get our teams and our own heads around what those changes were and the aerodynamic effects especially, and I think we’ve seen some stronger performance in the latter half of the year, which we hope to continue into 2020,” he said. “I would also say that there are still rule changes for 2020, although the packages aren’t changing, some of the things like reduced wind tunnel time will be in place, and the effectiveness of your tools like aero, computational fluid dynamics will come into play more than wind tunnel testing is today. There’s still going to be, I think, some balance shifts. Maybe we’ll see who has the best aero CFD tool.”

3. A new tire isn’t that simple

As NASCAR looks at the racing, particularly at short tracks, one idea from fans is that Goodyear should change the tire so that it wears more.

But Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that it is not as easy as that. He explained, describing what makes Homestead-Miami Speedway such a good track and why it’s hard to replicate that elsewhere.

“The variable degree banking is a terrific design,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “It creates racing in multiple grooves. The surface itself is pretty worn now, so that’s really what promotes the (tire) falloff that we see at Homestead over the course of a fuel run, about 2 1/2 seconds through the course of those runs.

“You have to be very careful to say that we can go in and design a tire that is going to produce that kind of falloff at any given race track. The falloff you see at Homestead is because of that race track and the worn surface. The same would be true of Darlington. The same would be true at Chicago and Atlanta. Those are worn surfaces that have lost some of their mechanical grip. … You have to be very careful (to) say we want to do that at every race track because at some places it’s just not possible. The surface itself just has enough mechanical grip that it just won’t work.

“We don’t want to artificially influence falloff or tire wear because that leads to not a good situation. You want something that is a natural progression from a wear and a falloff perspective.”

4. Who will be the fourth?

Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and moderator for Jimmie Johnson’s news conference Thursday, noted that few would question Johnson’s place on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore of drivers. Kelley raised the question of who would be the fourth.

NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Leonard Wood and Rusty Wallace at Darlington Raceway in 2015. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It leads to an interesting debate. Presuming NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore features its three seven-time champions — Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Johnson — there could be quite a debate for the fourth spot.

Is it David Pearson? His 105 victories rank second on the all-time list. He rarely ran a full season but he did win three championships. Petty has said that he considers Pearson the sport’s greatest driver.

Or is it Jeff Gordon? His 93 victories are third on the all-time wins list and he has four championships in an era that was arguably more competitive than Pearson’s era.

Or is there a case to be made for Cale Yarborough? While his 83 career wins are one less than Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip each, Yarborough won three consecutive championships, a record that seemed unbreakable until Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10.

Or is it someone else?

5. Moving on

Overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s news this week was Justin Marks’ announcement Thursday that he was “hanging up the helmet.”

Marks, who came from a road racing background, made 79 starts throughout his NASCAR career among Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. He had 38 Truck starts and 35 Xfinity starts.

His one win came in the rain at Mid-Ohio in the 2016 Xfinity race there. No one could match him in the downpour there.

Marks has always looked at the sport in a different way with his background in multiple racing series. After finishing second in the inaugural Roval Xfinity race in 2018, Marks lauded the new way Charlotte Motor Speedway was used and said NASCAR could do more, suggesting a street course event.

“I’m a huge believer you have to take your product to the people,” Marks said that day. “In 2012, I went to the Long Beach Grand Prix as a competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Series and I remember spending the weekend at that race there looking around at 100,000 people and thinking that 90,000 of these people aren’t racing fans. They’re here because it’s a great cultural event.

“I think that the days of people driving 500 miles from their home to spend four days at a race track camping are numbered.”

While he admitted there would be challenges with a Cup street race, he said: “I think it could be a hell of a show if they did it, especially if they went to a market like Detroit or LA or South Florida, or if they managed to pull something off in Nashville or Austin or something like that, great cultural hubs and great markets.”

As NASCAR looks to alter its schedule in the future, Marks’ words could prove prophetic.

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Who will take over for Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car in 2021?

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CONCORD, N.C. — How does one replace an icon in a sport? And with whom?

Car owner Rick Hendrick faces those questions with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s announcement that the 2020 season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver.

Hendrick was ready with a response during Thursday’s media session with Johnson at the Hendrick Motorsports complex.

“I’ve already picked a guy,” Hendrick said before a dramatic pause.

“Jeff Gordon is coming back.”

Everyone laughed.

But the reality remains, the No. 48 car — the most successful car in the 2000s — is open for 2021. As for Hendrick’s plans in finding a driver?

“We’ve got another year,” he said, turning the conversation to getting Johnson a record eighth championship.

The No. 48 car’s opening likely will create a frenzy among free agents and drivers with contracts that give them the chance to opt out of deals. While the car is winless in its last 95 races and Hendrick’s last title came in 2016, the organization remains among the best in the sport and such an opening is a rare opportunity for any driver.

So who could be that driver?

Hendrick has trended toward hiring younger drivers in the last 15 years. Five of his nine hires in that time featured drivers age 24 or under at the beginning of their first season with the organization.

Brian Vickers was 20 when the 2004 season began. Kyle Busch was 19 at the start of the 2005 season. Chase Elliott was 20 at the beginning of the 2016 campaign. William Byron was 20 at the start of the 2018 season, and Alex Bowman was 24 when he began that year.

One of the benefits for Hendrick is that he already has a sponsor in Ally, which recently signed an extension through the 2023 season. Unlike other teams where driver hires might be made based on how much sponsorship a driver can bring, Hendrick has time and leverage in making this selection.

“They’re really very supportive and wide open to what happens,” said Gordon, co-owner of the car, about Ally. “So ’21 definitely things are going to change. So we’ve got to evaluate and look at what type of driver is going to suit that car.”

The driver social media already has in the No. 48 car in 2021 is Kyle Larson. He has acknowledged having a contract through the 2020 season and has professed a loyalty to Chip Ganassi Racing, his home for his entire Cup career. Larson would be 28 years entering the 2021 season. One concern for Hendrick might be Larson’s dirt track racing. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to do that and changed his mind after Kahne escaped a flip one night.

There are other drivers to consider.

Erik Jones signed a one-year extension with Joe Gibbs Racing to go through the 2020 season. Jones will be 24 by the time the 2021 season starts. That would mark the start of his fifth Cup season. He’s already made the playoffs the past two years and will be among those expected to make the playoffs in 2020. His playoff luck, though, has been awful. Accidents marred his 2018 playoffs and mechanical issues, including his car failing post-race inspection led to his early exit in this year’s playoffs.

Matt DiBenedetto also has a contract only for the 2020 season. He joins the Wood Brothers, replacing Paul Menard, for the upcoming year. DiBenedetto has earned the respect of many for how he’s climbed the ranks, often with poor equipment. He’s turned that into better rides and nearly won the Bristol night race before Denny Hamlin passed him late in the event. DiBenedetto will be 29 entering the 2021 season. That would be his seventh full-time Cup season.

Of course, if Hendrick wanted to change things up, there could be other options.

Brad Keselowski once drove for JR Motorsports and ran nine Cup races for Hendrick Motorsports early in his career. In 2009, with no room for Keselowski at Hendrick for a full-time ride, Keselowski made plans to move to Team Penske the following season. Hendrick told The Associated Press in 2009 of Keselowski: “Wherever he goes, he’ll always be close enough for me to get him and bring him back.” Whether that remains possible remains to be seen. Keselowski signed a multi-year contract extension in July 2017. The 2012 Cup champion will turn 37 shortly before the 2021 Daytona 500.

Another driver move that could be enticing would be Chase Elliott’s close friend, Ryan Blaney, joining him at Hendrick Motorsports in 2021. Blaney, who has made the playoffs each of the past three years, is settled in at Team Penske, signing a multi-year contract extension in July 27. But what does Blaney say of some hopes of some fans? He told NBC Sports: “That’s what they say, that’s not something I’ve really thought about at all.” Blaney would be 27 entering the 2021 campaign.

Other possible candidates could include Ross Chastain, Justin Haley, John Hunter Nemechek, Corey LaJoie and JR Motorsports drivers Daniel Hemric and Noah Gragson, should they have a breakout season. 

Chastain will be 28 entering the 2021 season. He has proven spectacular in the Xfinity and Truck series and could be the type of racer Hendrick appreciates. Chastain’s teammate at Kaulig Racing in the Xfinity Series is Haley, who would be 21 at the start of the 2021 season. Haley finished third in the Truck playoffs in 2018 and placed 12th in the Xfinity playoffs this year. He also won the rain-shortened Daytona Cup race in July.

LaJoie will be 29 entering the 2021 season and has done a lot with the equipment he has. Bowman showed that someone who starts out in less-than-stellar equipment can win races for Hendrick. Could LaJoie be that type of candidate?

Nemechek will be 23 going into the 2021 season. His plans for next year have yet to be announced with GMS Racing announcing it will not return in the Xfinity Series. Nemechek showed well in the final three Cup races for Front Row Motorsports for Matt Tifft and that could be a spot for him next year. Gragson, who will be 22 entering the 2021 campaign, completed his rookie Xfinity season this year for JR Motorsports. He went winless but had nine top-five and 22 top-10 finishes. Hemric will be 29 when the 2021 season begins. The key for him is he needs to win.

Of course, many things will change before Hendrick Motorsports is ready to announce Johnson’s successor. Whenever that day is.

But, no, it won’t be Jeff Gordon.

Daniel McFadin and Nate Ryan contributed to this report

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