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Chad Knaus signs extension with Hendrick Motorsports through 2020 season

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SPARTA, Kentucky – Champion crew chief Chad Knaus has signed a contract extension to remain at Hendrick Motorsports through the 2020 season, the team announced Saturday afternoon.

Knaus’ contract was to have expired after this season. Knaus said he signed the contract extension in the last couple of weeks. JImmie Johnson is signed through the 2020 season.

Johnson and Knaus have been together since Johnson’s rookie year in 2002, the longest current tenure in the sport. They’ve combined to win seven championships.

“I think I’ve got a lot of opportunities to do a lot of things in the future, but right now we are focused on trying to get the ship righted at Hendrick Motorsports and get our cars qualifying and racing a little bit better,” Knaus said in comments distributed by Hendrick Motorsports. “And that is my primary goal.”

Johnson enters Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) on a 41-race winless streak, the longest drought of his career.

“Obviously, I’m a very competitive person and if we go three weeks without winning I’m frustrated,” Knaus said. “It’s just a matter of going out there and competing. I love to compete. The winless streak right now, yeah although it’s not where we want to be by any stretch of the imagination it is where we are. It’s our reality right now and we’ve got to fight through it.”

Johnson starts 27th tonight.

Even with the struggles this season, the carrot of a record eighth championship remains.

“I would say that in years past it was maybe more just focusing on the next week,” Knaus said. “But I think I would be foolish and lying to not admit the fact that to get eight championships and to put Jimmie on a pedestal by himself at the top of the standings with championships is not a huge desire of mine and something I definitely want to try to achieve.”

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Martin Truex Jr. wins pole for Quaker State 400

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Martin Truex Jr. won the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), claiming his series-best fourth pole of the season.

Truex, the defending winner of the Quaker State 400, posted a top speed of 188.890 mph. It’s his 19th career pole.

He is joined on the front row by Erik Jones (188.739 mph), who is coming off his first career Cup win last week.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

“It’s Turn 3, man. That sucker will get you every time,” Truex told NBCSN. “If you want to go fast you’ve got to put it on the edge. I’m talkin’ a half a MPH going into (Turn) 3 from over rolling the speed and just missing the bottom. It’s a treacherous corner but it’s a lot of fun when you get it right.”

Austin Dillon qualified 13th and was followed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Larson.

Larson has started 11th or worse in seven of the last nine races.

Bubba Wallace qualified 25th followed by AJ Allmendinger and Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson has started 27th or worse four times this season.

Four drivers, including Denny Hamlin, Jesse Little, Timmy Hill and Matt DiBenedetto, did not make qualifying attempts after their cars failed to pass inspection in time.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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NASCAR America: Jimmie Johnson is the Comeback Kid

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America loves a Comeback Kid.

When Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on lap 109 of the Coke Zero 400, the fans in the grandstand responded.

“I was really surprised,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was standing in the booth and Jimmie is battling here to take the lead. And when he did, visually the entire grandstand stood up, held their arms in the air and were cheering him on.”

He led a total of 10 laps before he was eliminated in a multi-car accident on lap 162 during the first overtime.

But it is just that type of hardship that is beginning to endear him to a fan base that turned on him when he was winning too often.

Fans are responding to him now “because he looks real,” Kyle Petty said. “Here is a human, who is failing at some of this stuff. … Not succeeding at the level he was.”

Johnson’s earlier success played against him, but America may see him as a fitting challenger to the Big 3 of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. who are dominating NASCAR.

“That’s America,” Petty continued. “You build them up and then as soon as you get them to the top, you cut their legs out from under them so you can cheer for them again. And that’s what they’re doing to Jimmie.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

What drivers had to say after first Roval open test

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CONCORD, N.C. — Sixteen Cup teams hit Charlotte Motor Speedway Tuesday for the first open test on the track’s 2.28-mile, 17-turn road course that will host the Sept. 30 Bank of America Roval 400.

From 9 – 6 p.m. ET the teams tried to get familiar with the course that they will visit for the last race in the first round of the playoffs.

Drivers came away with different reactions to the track, which uses most of the 1.5-mile oval.

“You’re not comfortable anywhere,” Jimmie Johnson told NBC Sports and ESPN. “You’re on pins and needles afraid you’re going to bust your butt. There’s not a calm place around here.”

The seven-time champion believes attrition during the 109-lap race is “going to be very high.”

“It’s very easy to make mistakes and have big problems when you make mistakes,” Johnson said. “Race time is going to be a handful.”

Asked where the best place to pass will be, Johnson answered simply, “pit lane.”

MORE: Bubba Wallace wrecks early in Roval test.

Kasey Kahne indicated miscues could be aplenty, saying “Basically if you make a mistake you hit something.”

But the Leavine Family Racing driver enjoyed his marathon experience on the new track.

“I actually kind of like all of it,” Kahne said. “I like all of it and I dislike all of it. It’s very unique and different and interesting to drive. Because of that I think it makes it technical and difficult at the same time.”

Kahne said the road course portion in the infield is a “completely different type of technical” than Sonoma Raceway, the road course the series visited last month.

Paul Menard took that view a step further.

“We can’t look at Sonoma notes, we can’t look at Watkins Glen notes,” Menard told NBC Sports. “We have to create our own, because we’re going 170 (mph) through the banking … We don’t see anything like that at Watkins Glen. And certainly not Sonoma.”

The main road course portion ends in Turn 8, where drivers return to the oval at the entrance of the oval’s Turn 1.

“You’re peddling it to not to run into the wall,” Kahne said. “Because of the lack of turn, the way you pick up the banking. It’s so flat right before that … you rely all on the car and you can only do so much I guess.”

Once on the backstretch, cars go through a chicane to slow them down before entering Turn 3.

The test was stopped for two hours in order to add two more sets of rumble strips to the chicane and a tire barrier at the chicane exit. Before their addition, drivers were blowing over the existing rumble strips as if they weren’t there.

“The changes on the backstretch were just to keep everybody honest, to keep everybody on the line that was defined,” Ryan Newman said. “I don’t know that it’s on its final iteration, but we’re making an attempt for it to be the final iteration.”

When it comes to the course overall, Chase Elliott said the “whole thing” presented problems for him.

“I feel like I struggled the worst leaving (Turn) 8 and then getting back on the frontstretch and entering the infield, that seems to be my bigger issues,” Elliott told NBC Sports.

Similar to Kahne, the Hendrick driver said “it’s all pretty fun, if you don’t crash.”

At the end of the day Elliott wasn’t sure where the best passing zones would materialize.

“I’d say you could pretty much root and gouge somebody out-of-the-way in a bunch of different places if you really wanted to,” Elliott said. “I would say your best opportunities are maybe getting back on the frontstretch there and maybe into Turn 5 (a right-hand turn across from the traditional Turn 2). I don’t know, until everybody kind of gets to racing, it’s hard to say.”

It wasn’t hard for Menard to say what could be in store for fans and drivers come Sept. 30.

“Should be a hell of a show.”