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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Will Team Hendrick steal the show at the Brickyard?

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If there ever was a good place for Jimmie Johnson to break his 84-race winless streak, or for young teammate William Byron to earn his first career NASCAR Cup win, it’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.

Say what you want about Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance this season, the 2.5-mile Brickyard has definitely been a Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports track.

In the 25 prior editions of the Brickyard 400, Chevy has won 17 times, with 10 of those coming from Hendrick drivers: five by Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, four by Johnson and one by Kasey Kahne, who won in 2017. That equals 40% of all Brickyard 400 races since the first in 1994 (won by Gordon). No other Cup team has more than five total wins in Indy (Joe Gibbs Racing).

Indianapolis is one of 13 NASCAR tracks where HMS has reached 10 wins. In addition, three different HMS drivers have won three of the last seven editions of the 400. And over the 25-year history, of 94 collective starts in the Brickyard by all HMS drivers, nearly half – 40 – have ended up with top-10 finishes.

To extrapolate that even further, Hendrick Motorsports has never gone more than three years without a Brickyard win in the quarter-century existence of the 400-mile race there.

While Johnson needs no additional motivation to do well Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) to assure he makes the playoffs, here’s a few other facts the driver of the No. 48 Chevy should keep in mind:

* The winner of the 400 has gone on to win the championship nine times in that same season: Johnson three times; Jeff Gordon twice; Kyle Busch, Dale Jarrett, Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart once.

* Of the seven Cup championships Johnson has earned in his career, he went on to win the title in three of the four years he won at Indianapolis.

Given that Sunday is the final race of the 26-race regular season and will finalize the 16-driver field for the Cup playoffs, Hendrick Motorsports is sitting pretty coming in with three of its four drivers already qualified for the post-season: Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman.

“We go to a lot of places that we are really strong at and there are a lot of good tracks for us in the playoffs,” Bowman said. “We have a lot of work to do I think, but I think the tracks that suit us can be very good. Starting at a place like Vegas, going back to Kansas and Dover, we are going to a lot of tracks that are good for us so we should be really strong. I think a lot of it is building momentum these two weeks after the off weekend.”

Added Elliott: “Our number one goal is to get better at Indy and run better more consistently. That’s the main goal. It is such a special place that we want to run well. You want to run well everywhere you go, but especially at Indy.”

Johnson, who is 18 points out of the final  playoff spot, is the only Hendrick driver who remains uncertain to make the playoffs. If he does not, it would mark the first time in his career that he missed a chance for the championship.

No one has to tell him what’s at stake Sunday.

“We are running out of days and if we miss it, it’s just going to be by a few I believe,” Johnson said. “If I look back over the first half of the season, I see a lot of races where we gave away a few points. So, it’s kind of unfair to put all the pressure on one race in Indy. But it is what it is and we are going to go there to win a race.”

That may be the only way to assure his playoff streak continues.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NASCAR America: Summertime superlatives

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NASCAR lends itself to superlatives. The words “greatest”, “best” and “most” are tossed about with absolute abandon.

Sometimes, they actually apply.

With Cup off this weekend before a final 12-week stretch, NASCAR America’s Marty Snider, Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill provided their lists of drivers who deserved unparalleled praise.

Most Impressive Driver?
Kyle Busch: “This dude drove by me like 10 times Saturday night.” – Cassill
Kevin Harvick: “This award is like the best coach. … They always give it to a team they didn’t think would do well.” – Burton
Clint Bowyer: “I don’t think we expected him to have two wins at this point in the season.” – Snider

Most Hard-Luck Team?
Daniel Suarez: “Every time they get momentum going, something happens to knock it out from under them.” – Burton
Aric Almirola: “They’ve had bad fortune and in some cases they make their own luck.” – Cassill
John Hunter Nemechek: “With under two laps to go and leading: They lost two races.” – Snider

Surprise of the Season
• Chevrolet: “I’m shocked that Chevrolet hasn’t run as well as they have. … To a man, to a woman, everybody I talked to in the off-season that was involved with Chevrolet, they were like ‘we’re gonna kick their butts.” – Burton
• Hendrick Motorsports: “I did not expect this from Hendrick Motorsports, to struggle this much in 2018.” – Snider
• Superspeedway carnage: “We’ve always seen big wrecks and we always expect big wrecks on superspeedways, but all three superspeedway races we’ve had have all been complete trashed racecars.” – Cassill

Best Strategy Call
• Cole Pearn at Sonoma: “Anytime Cole Pearn makes a strategy call, I’m like ‘that was so awesome.’ “ – Cassill
• Cole Pearn at Sonoma: “Anytime you can surprise this level of crew chief … that to me is really impressive.” – Burton
• Mike Bugarewicz at Michigan: “That was a big call to get them their second win of 2018.” – Snider
Superlatives were also handed out for the wildest wreck, best overall race, funniest moment, best post-race celebration and the championship favorite.

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America: Hendrick Motorsports could win their 13th championship this year

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Kasey Kahne scored Hendrick Motorsports’ 249th victory at Indianapolis last year. It would take more than a year for them to reach the 250-win milestone when Chase Elliott pulled into victory lane at Watkins Glen earlier this month.

The last three wins for Rick Hendrick came with three different drivers – and that is fitting since the organization’s 250 victories have come with 17 different drivers behind the wheel, according to NBC’s Nate Ryan.

Geoff Bodine gave Hendrick his first win in 1984; 11 years later, Jeff Gordon gave them the organization its first championship.

Jimmie Johnson gave Hendrick Motorsports its 12th Cup championship in 2016 – and now that the organization’s winless streak has ended, the question turns to whether they will be able to get another championship.

“If you’d asked me this a month ago, I would have said ’no, there’s not a chance,’ “ Jeff Burton said on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America. “But watching Chase Elliott and the improvement they’ve made – you look at the stage wins they’ve all the sudden started getting, the laps they’ve started leading – they’ve become very consistent.

“Chase Elliott gives them a shot. I don’t see anyone else that has a chance.”

Landon Cassill would toss Johnson’s name in the mix.

“It’s Hendrick Motorsports and it’s a yes all the time,” Cassill said. “And that’s because they’re still one of the most well-funded organizations in the sport, they’ve got some of the most talented people, you can always hang your hat on that 48 team – even though they’re without a win. They can show up and peak at the right time. … The beauty of our sport right now is with the playoff system, it only takes one win to be the champion.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

NASCAR America: What happens to Brad Keselowski now that 88 ride has been filled? (video)

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Amid all the news about Alex Bowman replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Team Hendrick Chevrolet next season, one thing was kind of overlooked.

Rumors had floated throughout the sport the last several weeks about Brad Keselowski being a possible candidate to replace Earnhardt, as well.

Those rumors were only bolstered more by the fact Keselowski has still not signed a contract extension with Team Penske. His current deal runs out at the end of the current Cup season.

NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan appeared on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America and talked about the various ramifications of the Bowman deal. But Ryan also suggested that with Bowman now in place, will that potentially hasten Keselowski’s re-signing with Team Penske perhaps sooner than later now that the 88 ride is off the table?

“Whether Brad Keselowski was seriously weighing a move to the 88 or whether he was using it as leverage to get a better deal from Team Penske and Ford, this just makes it all the more likely that he will re-sign with Team Penske and stay in the No. 2 Ford next year,” Ryan said.

“It’s very likely that we will hear soon that Brad Keselowski is re-signing with Team Penske. That deal is very close.”

Ryan also discussed whether another driver whose name was mentioned as a potential replacement for Earnhardt, young William Byron, may also score a promotion to the Cup Series with Team Hendrick.

“I think Cup could still be in the cards for next year,” Ryan said of Byron. “Kasey Kahne is under contract in the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports for 2018, but he is having a very disappointing season.

“If Hendrick elected to make a change on that ride, it could depend on sponsorship. That ride doesn’t have much sponsorship announced yet for 2018 and William Byron could certainly be an option there.

“He brings some sponsorship from Liberty University, and he also has been sponsored in a few races with Axalta and they really like what he’s done. If he goes to Cup, they really want to be on his car.”