Rick Hendrick

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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Career timeline: Jimmie Johnson through the years

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When Jimmie Kenneth Johnson first competed in motorcycle racing and then off-road truck racing, NASCAR seemed a world away.

But when General Motors executive Herb Fischel convinced Johnson a little over two decades ago that if he wanted to achieve even greater racing success, he had to head to NASCAR — in a Chevrolet, of course. Johnson agreed to try his luck in stock car racing and the rest, as they say, is history.

Even though he was from the West Coast rather than the South where most NASCAR stars back then hailed from, Johnson would go on to become one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history behind the wheel of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

The future Hall of Famer announced Wednesday that he will retire from full-time competition in the NASCAR Cup Series after the 2020 season. Let’s reflect back on some of the highlights of Johnson’s career:

1998 and 1999: Began his initial foray into stock car racing with a two-year stint in the ASA National Tour Series, earning two wins, 17 top 5 and 31 top 10 finishes in 40 combined starts. His first win in a stock car came on June 12, 1999 at Memphis Motorsports Park in the Greased Lightning 200. He dominated the event, leading 156 laps on the .750-mile paved oval. During those same two years, Johnson also dipped his toes in NASCAR racing, competing in eight races in the then-Busch Series for Herzog Motorsports, with a best finish of seventh on July 4, 1999 at The Milwaukee Mile.

2000: Still with Herzog Motorsports, Johnson competed in his first full season in the Busch Series, earning six top 10 finishes, with a best showing of sixth place at South Boston, Michigan and Homestead. But to this day, he’s still remembered by fans for one of the most vicious wrecks of his career, as his No. 92 ran off into the grass at Watkins Glen, vaulted into the air and slammed head-on into the retaining wall after his car suffered brake failure.

2001: In his final season with Herzog Motorsports and also his final full-time season in the Busch Series, Johnson earned his first win (Chicagoland Speedway), four top-five and nine top-10 finishes. Ironically, with all the success he would go on to experience in the Cup Series, Johnson’s win at Chicagoland was – and remains – his only triumph in what is now the Xfinity Series. In the same year, Johnson got his first taste of NASCAR Cup racing, competing in three races for Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, co-owned by Rick Hendrick and Johnson’s new teammate, NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon. It was an auspicious beginning: Johnson finished 25th, 29th and 39th in his three Cup starts.

2002: Johnson exploded in his rookie season in the Cup Series. He began by earning the pole for the Daytona 500, then went on to win the first of what would be 83 career Cup Series wins at his home track, California Speedway (now Auto Club Speedway). He would win two other races (both at Dover, where he would go on to win a career-best 11 times), had six top-five and 21 top-10 finishes and placed fifth in the final standings.

2003: Johnson finishes second in the standings behind Matt Kenseth. Earns three wins.

2004: Johnson finishes second in the standings behind Kurt Busch. Earned eight wins, which would become the second-most victories in a single season in his career. Also experienced one of the most tragic days of his life when, on October 24, Johnson won at Martinsville only to skip any victory celebration when it was learned that a Hendrick Motorsports plane carrying 10 headed for the race, crashed in Southern Virginia.

2005: Wins four races and finishes fifth in the standings.

2006: Johnson begins the season in a big way, earning the first of two career Daytona 500 wins, and then continues on to finish the season by winning his first career Cup championship, capturing five wins, 13 top five and 24 top-10 finishes. He also scores the first of four Brickyard 400 victories.

2007: Johnson wins his second consecutive Cup championship, paced by a single season career-best 10 wins, the only time he has earned double-digit wins in a season.

2008: Johnson wins his third consecutive Cup championship. Earns seven wins, including his second Brickyard 400 victory.

2009: Wins his fourth consecutive Cup championship, breaking Cale Yarborough’s record of three straight Cup titles. Once again earns seven wins, including his third Brickyard 400 triumph. Selected as Male Athlete of the Year by The Associated Press.

2010: Wins his fifth consecutive Cup championship. Earns six wins.

2011: His string of consecutive championships ends, as he has what many consider an off year, finishing sixth in the standings and earning just two wins, the fewest he would earn in a single season until he went winless in both 2018 and 2019.

2012: Finished third in the season standings. Won five races, including his fourth and most recent Brickyard 400 victory.

2013: Earns his second career Daytona 500 win. He also wins the summer race at Daytona for the first and only time in his career. Wins six races and caps it off with his sixth Cup championship.

2014: Wins four races but struggles in the first year of the new NASCAR Cup playoff format, finishing 11th, the first time he’s finished outside the top six in the final standings in his Cup career.

2015: In a similar storyline as the previous season, wins multiple races (five), but struggles in the playoffs and is eliminated in the first round, finishing 10th in the final standings.

2016: Johnson moves into NASCAR legend status when he wins his seventh Cup championship, tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Once again earns five wins.

2017: Johnson earns three wins, including his most recent – and 83rd of his career – victory in the Cup Series on June 4. It also extends his record as the winningest Cup driver at Dover International Speedway to 11 wins in his career. He once again struggles to advance in the playoffs and finishes 10th.

2018: For the first time in his full-time career, Johnson goes winless. He earns just two top-five finishes, a career single-season low. Makes the playoffs but is eliminated after the first round and finishes 14th, which was a career-low (until 2019).

2019: For the first time in his career, he competes without crew chief Chad Knaus. They were split after the 2018 season. Johnson fails to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in his career and finishes a career-worst 18th in the standings. His winless streak reaches 95 consecutive races. Johnson announces that the 2020 season will be his last as a full-time driver in the Cup Series.

Two months ago on the Dale Jr. Download, as seen on NBCSN, Johnson gave some hints as to what he may do once his full-time Cup days are over with. Check it out.

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Jimmie Johnson’S CAREER – BY THE NUMBERS

1 – Made his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 7, 2001; he started the race 15th but finished 39th due to being involved in an incident.

4 – Won his first career pole in the Monster Energy Series in his fourth start; the 2002 Daytona 500; he started first but finished 15th.

4 – Number of career Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race wins – series-most.

5 – Only driver in NASCAR National Series history to win five consecutive championships – from 2006-2010.

 7 – Total number of career Monster Energy Series titles – tied with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the series-most.

11 – Career-most wins in the Monster Energy Series at single track – Dover International Speedway.

11.9 – Career average starting position in the Monster Energy Series – sixth-best among Cup drivers with 600 or more starts.

12.9 – Career average finishing position in the Monster Energy Series – sixth best among Cup drivers with 600 or more starts.

13 – Won his first Monster Energy Series race in just his 13th career start on April 28, 2002 at Auto Club Speedway; he started the race fourth.

Drivers Avg Finish Starts
1 Dale Earnhardt 11.061 676
2 Richard Petty 11.267 1,185
3 Buck Baker 11.374 636
4 Bobby Allison 11.493 718
5 Jeff Gordon 12.509 805
6 Jimmie Johnson 12.896 651

16 – Number of consecutive seasons with wins in the Monster Energy Series (2002-2017).

20 – Number of different tracks he has won at in the Monster Energy Series.

36 – Number of Monster Energy Series career poles – 17th-most all-time.

83 – Number of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career wins – tied with NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth-most all-time.

227 – Number of Monster Energy Series top-five finishes – 11th-most all-time.

346 – Number of Monster Energy Series races he has led at least one lap – (53.5%).

364 – Number of Monster Energy Series top-10 finished – 10th-most all-time.

651 – Number of Monster Energy Series career starts – 26th-most all-time.

18,834 – Career number of laps led – ninth-most all-time

184,866 – Career number of laps completed – 22nd-most all-time.

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Hertz extends sponsorship of William Byron’s team through 2021

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Hertz has extended its sponsorship of William Byron‘s No. 24 team, through the 2021 season, Hendrick Motorsports announced Wednesday.

Hertz will serve as the primary sponsor of four Cup points races annually and as a full-season associate sponsor. Hertz will serve as the primary sponsor at Auto Club Speedway and ISM Raceway in March and at Talladega Superspeedway and Kansas Speedway in October during the playoffs.

Hertz has been with Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 24 team since May 2018 and has introduced an exclusive line of Hertz-Hendrick Motorsports custom Camaro rental cars that pay tribute to Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet.

Hendrick Motorsports also unveiled Byron’s 2020 paint scheme with the Hertz sponsorship Wednesday. The new look will debut Nov. 10 at ISM Raceway.

“We’re thrilled to see our partnership with Hertz continue,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “From offering a special line of Camaros to rewarding high-performing employees with NASCAR experiences, Hertz has done a wonderful job with the program. In only his second year, William has shown he can run up front on any type of racetrack. The future of the No. 24 team is very bright, and we look forward to sharing that future with everyone at Hertz.”

Jimmie Johnson not ready to reveal future plans

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DOVER, Del. — Although Ally Financial is is committed to sponsoring the No. 48 car through the 2023 season, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson isn’t ready to give a hint on his future plans.

Johnson’s contract with Hendrick Motorsports expires after the 2020 season.

MORE: Rick Hendrick says that Jimmie Johnson “has something to prove”

Johnson’s status came up with Friday’s news that Ally has extended is primary sponsorship of his car.

“I haven’t made any decisions at this point,” said Johnson, who is on a career-long 88-race winless streak and not in playoff contention for the first time in his career. “I’m very, very excited that Ally has signed this extension with Hendrick. I think it speaks to the strength of our sport, strength and relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. I know everybody would like for me to be in the car in 2023 and even past that, but I just haven’t made that decision yet.

“I certainly didn’t want to stand in the way of this great news coming out. As this came down the pipeline, I knew I would be in a position to answer a lot of questions that would come with it, but I just felt it was such great news, I had to support Hendrick to get this news out right away and Ally as well, just great for our sport and industry. I don’t have anything to say at this time and I’m going to take every day that I can get from Mr. Hendrick to make this decision.”

Johnson, 44, said there will be many factors that will lead to his decision on if to continue in Cup after 2020.

“There’s a lot of things to look at with the Gen 7 car coming (in 2021), with the way our team is performing and what we’re building, I might want to go longer than 2023,” said Johnson, who seeks his 84th career Cup win this weekend at Dover International Speedway. “I just don’t know. I have not put much time and effort into it. There have been many other things to deal with and look at.

“These things in the past, a contract renewal would usually start in the spring of the year the contract would end. Based on past experience, I would say that probably spring next year is when I would really get pressure to make a decision if I was going to return in 2021.”