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News

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Forced to Backup After Crash

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Monster Energy Cup Series race weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway got off to a lousy start Friday afternoon.

Just moments into the day’s lone practice round, the 14-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver got up in to the PJ1 traction compound in Turns 3 and 4, lost grip and stuffed the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet into the Turn 4 wall, forcing him to a backup car.

And afterwards, he was not happy about it.

Earnhardt said his No. 88 Chevy “got into this black stuff and it just took off into the fence.  I think the car was pretty good, but had to pull a back-up out.  It should be fine though.  It’s a good thing that it happened early and we will get to practice tomorrow and get to work on it.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Hendrick Motorsports Flashes Hot New Looks for 2018

Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t given up on 2017, especially not with drivers Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott still in contention for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

But the 12-time Cup championship team definitely has an eye on 2018, when much will change at Hendrick: A new Cup car in the 2018 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1; new drivers in William Byron (24) and Alex Bowman (88) and a totally new look for the team.

Thursday night at the Charlotte Convention Center’s Crown Ballroom, the team did something it had never done before, unveiling the 2018 Daytona 500 paint schemes for all four of its cars in a flashy and impressive roll out featuring lasers, glow sticks and loud music.

No. 9

For 2018, Chase Elliott moves from the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the No. 9, which was Elliott’s number when he won a NASCAR XFINITY Series championship and, of course, was the number used by his father, NASCAR Hall of Fame member Bill Elliott.

While Elliott’s car will still feature the familiar gold-on-blue NAPA Auto Parts logo, the new Camaro has a lot of white in its design as well.

No. 24

William Byron won’t turn 20 years old until next month, but he’s about to take over one of the most iconic rides in NASCAR history, the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Jeff Gordon won 93 races and four Cup championships with.

And Gordon fans will no doubt love the fact that Byron’s 2018 Camaro ZL1 while prominently feature the Axalta flames similar to those that Gordon carried on his car.

No. 48

One of the most radical departures for the Hendrick squad is the No. 48 2018 Camaro ZL1 that seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson will drive. Trimmed out in solid black, the No. 48 will be sponsored by LowesForPROS.com, continuing a partnership that began in Johnson’s rookie season of 2002.

Johnson is going for his record eighth championship this season and already has 83 career race victories, all in the No. 48.

No. 88

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after the end of the season and he was instrumental in recommending Alex Bowman to take over the No. 88 in 2018.  Bowman was impressive subbing for Earnhardt in 2016, and his performance was enough to land the ride for next season.

Bowman’s No. 88 Camaro ZL1 will be sponsored by longtime Hendrick partner Nationwide and features the insurance company’s blue and white paint scheme.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Jimmie Johnson at Stage Where He Needs to Qualify Better

If you’re still getting used to NASCAR’s new-for-2017 stage racing, you’re in good company: So is seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson easily advanced to the second round of the Cup playoffs, which begins with Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. But Johnson acknowledged he and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team need to do a better job of amassing stage points if he wants to continue to move to the next round in the title hunt.

This year for the first time, NASCAR breaks races down into three stages, typically putting stage breaks at roughly one-quarter and one-half the race distances. The top 10 finishers in each stage get points ranging from 10 points for winning a stage down to one point for finishing 10th. The stage winners also get one playoff point.

With 20 stage points available in each race, it’s important for drivers to amass as many as they can. In the first round of the playoffs, Johnson only had 13 out of a possible 60 points — seven at New Hampshire and six more at Dover.

In Round 2, Johnson will try to improve upon those totals. One key, the driver said, will be to do a better job qualifying.

“I think this year vs. last, yeah, qualifying is much more important than it’s ever been to try and score those early stage points,” Johnson said Thursday night after Hendrick Motorsports unveiled its 2018 Daytona 500 paint schemes. “When it’s in a three-race block like it is, those few points you collect really do mean something. … every one of those points is important. That’s much different than last year.”

Johnson admitted qualifying has been something of a challenge. He hasn’t qualified in the top 10 since the Brickyard 400 10 races ago, and in the three playoff races so far, Johnson has qualified 14th, 12th and 17th.

“I don’t know how I can put any more on it,” Johnson said when asked about his team’s emphasis on qualifying. “I feel like I’ve got to stop overthinking it now. We have tried so hard to get qualifying under control. And I think this format in general doesn’t suit us, but we love a challenge and we’ll figure it out.”

The good news for Johnson in terms of starting is this week’s race is at Charlotte, where he has eight points wins, four poles and a series-best average starting position of 8.063.

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NASCAR Cup Series

ELLIOTT: Chicagoland “A Major Step in the Right Direction”

After a strong start to the year, Chase Elliott didn’t emerge as a consistent front-runner in the summer. He performed well at times in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with three top-fives in June and July but wasn’t up to par with the strongest cars in the field.

Hendrick Motorsports seemed behind on speed in recent months as an organization, outside of Kasey Kahne’s victory at Indianapolis.

This level of performance was concerning heading into the Playoffs. While a summer slump followed by a post-season rebound has been characteristic for Jimmie Johnson, Elliott lacked experience under similar circumstances.

Not knowing how Elliott would respond excluded him from the conversation surrounding title favorites, but now he is looking to prove that he belongs in the discussion.

Elliott had one of his best runs of the year in Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400, leading 42 laps, winning Stage 2, and finishing second.

“Just a much-improved day from where we’ve been, which is nice,” Elliott said.

It’s the second consecutive year he has placed in the top-five in the Playoffs opener after finishing third last September. He went onto to make the Round of 12 before being eliminated after Talladega.

Now with a year in the Playoffs under his belt, the bar is raised, and Elliott met it at Chicagoland.

New Hampshire will be a better indicator of where the No. 24 team stands as it has been one of its toughest tracks on the circuit. In three starts, Elliott has never placed better than 11th.

If he runs well and has another strong day at one of his best venues at Dover, he could follow in the footsteps of Johnson with his ability to recover once the championship fight begins.

However, topping the Toyota’s and specifically, Martin Truex Jr., remains a major obstacle for Elliott. 

“Obviously would have been great to battle with Martin a little bit more,” Elliott said. “We didn’t have anything for him.”

Compared to much of his season to date, Chicagoland was an excellent start to the playoffs.

While Elliott has been close to breaking through for victory numerous times in his young career, he believes the team is at its best right now, and it comes at the perfect time. 

“From where we’ve been to where we ran today was a major, major step in the right direction, frankly where we need to be, where we deserve to be, to the potential we can run,” Elliott said.

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EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Johnson Poised to Again Overcome Summer Slump

Jimmie Johnson captured his best finish in over three months by placing eighth in Saturday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway.

After winning at Dover in June, the seven-time champion struggled ever since as Richmond marked only his third top-10 since the victory.

A summer slump seems to be a trend for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Even in his first championship season of 2006, he placed outside the top-10 in four of the five races leading up to the Playoffs.

Similar poor finishes resulted in his following title years as the stretch ahead of the final ten events never seemed to favor the No. 48 team.

However, this summer seemed to be especially frustrating for Johnson.

The year started out well for the 2016 NASCAR Cup Series champion as he scored back-to-back wins at Texas and Bristol, locking up his post-season spot early.

Winning again at Dover further solidified a strong playoff point sum and put the team in an ideal position for the remainder of the regular season.

As the next three months played out, it proved to be anything but comfortable for Johnson.

He placed outside the top-25 in four of the five races between Kentucky and Watkins Glen. Three of those resulted from crashes, leading to a total of five DNF’s through the first 26 events of the year. He has never had more than four en route to a championship.

Consistently capturing poor finishes attested to a lack of speed out of the Hendrick Motorsports stable that seemed to impact all four teams.

While it’s a major concern heading into the first round of the Playoffs, it has never seemed to deter Johnson nor the organization in previous years.

In 2013, the 41-year-old finished outside the top-25 in the final four regular season races but then only placed worse than tenth once in the last ten events.

Under the current format where a victory guarantees a driver a spot in the next round, consistency isn’t as critical if a driver can win once in each set of three races.

Johnson used this to his advantage last season by visiting Victory Lane at Charlotte in round two and Martinsville in round three to advance to Homestead-Miami where he won the race and the title.

A similar performance will be needed if the No. 48 team hopes to put the first 26 races behind them and move onto to their most successful part of the schedule.

No matter what curveballs are thrown at Johnson ahead of the Playoffs, he seems to excel. The defending champion will enter fifth on the Playoff Grid with 17 bonus points as he chases a historic eighth championship.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @HeyJasonSchultz

EMAIL JASON AT jason.schultz@popularspeed.com

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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NASCAR Cup Series

Suspension Looming for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Crew Chief

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final Bojangles’ Southern 500 ended with a disappointing 22nd-place finish for the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Worse yet, Earnhardt’s crew chief, Greg Ives, is facing a one-race suspension and a $20,000 fine after the No. 88 was found to be missing two lugnuts on the right-rear wheel in post-race inspection at Darlington Raceway.

Earnhardt, who is 22nd in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings, will need to win next Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway if he wants to make NASCAR’s playoffs and race for a championship in his final season.

“They pulled me over because I’ve got some loose lugnuts on the right-rear,” Earnhardt said of the NASCAR inspectors. “Yeah, I mean when they saw they picked right up on it. I had a really bad vibration that last run and there was a bunch of them loose on the right-rear.  They (the pit crew) must have just kind of had a screw up.”

Earnhardt said a flat tire kept him from a better finish.

“Just had a really bad vibration, came in and got tires, we had a flat at the very end,” he said.  “Something was going, the right-rear was going down for a very long time and finally it went flat.”

And even replacing the flat tire didn’t help much.

“Came in changed that and went back out and it was so loose you couldn’t go so we had to abuse those tires too much at the end,” Earnhardt said. “Twelfth to 15th is where we all ran and I’m not too disappointed because we sat there and ran right with our teammates all night.”

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NASCAR Cup Series

Six Keys to Victory at Darlington

Tonight at Darlington Raceway, 40 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers will throw down in the Bojangles’ Southern 500, one of the most intense and grueling races of the year.

Darlington, an egg-shaped, 1.366-mile track is an especially brutal and unforgiving circuit, certainly among the toughest in all of NASCAR. There’s a reason it has nicknames like “The Lady In Black” and “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” Darlington is fast, treacherous and merciless.

Here are six keys to victory tonight’s race:

The high life

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 will have plenty of cautions. It always does. On restarts, the race leader gets to choose which lane he wants to restart in. At Darlington, the fast way around is the outside lane, which the leader will choose every time. This is especially critical if there’s a restart at the end of the race.

Size matters

This is a long race. Over the last three years, the Bojangles’ Southern 500 has taken an average of 4 hours, 2 minutes to complete. And the longer the race, the more the potential for mistakes — hitting the wall, making a bad pit stop, speeding on pit road, botching a restart. The likelihood of calamity striking is one huge reason why upset winners at Darlington are few and far between. Here, the best drivers on the best teams win.

No gambling

At some tracks, you see crew chiefs gamble on fuel only or two tires on pit stops or maybe no pit stops at all.  Not at Darlington. Tire wear is too pronounced here to gamble, so every pit stop will be for four tires.  In yesterday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race, the caution came out with 10 laps to go and all the leaders pitted for four fresh Goodyears. That will be the case tonight as well.

Equal opportunity

The first three rows of the starting grid tonight consists of two Fords (Kevin Harvick 1st, Brad Keselowski 6th); Two Toyotas (Martin Truex Jr. 2nd,  Kyle Busch 3rd); and two Chevrolets (Kyle Larson 4th, Jamie McMurray 5th). That would suggest a highly competitive race where no one team or brand has a pronounced advantage over the others. And it’s a good bet that one of the top six qualifiers will win.

Hendrick struggling

The struggles continue for Hendrick Motorsports, which right now lacks speed across the board in its cars.  Jimmie Johnson qualified 18th, Chase Elliott 20th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 22nd and Kasey Kahne 23rd. In the final practice the Hendrick cars weren’t speedy, either, with Kahne best of the bunch at ninth in single-lap fast speed and Elliott sixth in 10-consecutive-lap average speed. That won’t cut it tonight.

Penultimate pandemonium

The Bojangles’ Southern 500 is the 25th of 26 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regular season. After the final race next weekend at Richmond International Raceway, the 16-driver playoff field will be set. Several big-name drivers on the outside looking in must win either tonight or at Richmond to make the playoffs, including Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer.

 

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Commentary

Do the Math: 5 Fast Facts Behind Hendrick Motorsports Number Swap

In something of a surprise announcement, Hendrick Motorsports has decided to ditch the No. 5 that has raced in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series continually since its inception in 1984 as All-Star Racing.

Next year, the Hendrick Cup lineup will look like this:

  • Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88, replacing the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr.
  • Jimmie Johnson will remain in the No. 48.
  • Rookie William Byron will drive the No. 24.
  • Chase Elliott’s car number will switch to the No. 9.

Here are five fast facts about the number changes for the team in 2017.

The No. 9

Chase Elliott’s father, 1988 NASCAR Premier Series champion Bill Elliott, won 38 of his 44 races driving the No. 9 and Chase carried that number when he won the NASCAR XFINITY Series title in 2014. Five drivers have won a total of 53 Premier Series races in the No. 9. And in a weird bit of irony, the driver who ranks second to Elliott in victories in the No. 9 is outgoing Hendrick driver Kasey Kahne, with 11 wins in that car number, all before he joined Hendrick. Marcos Ambrose (2), Donald Thomas (1) and Herb Thomas (1) also won with that car number

The No. 24

Just 19 years old right now, William Byron will be taking over one of the most iconic car numbers in NASCAR history next season. No pressure, but consider this fact: The No. 24 has competed in 1,437 Premier Series races, with only one driver finding Victory Lane with that number. Jeff Gordon won 93 races in the No. 24, but no one else has ever won with that car number on the side.

The No. 48

The one constant for the Hendrick armada next year is seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who has been paired with crew chief Chad Knaus and sponsor Lowe’s since his rookie season of 2002. Johnson has won 83 races in the No. 48 and is one of only three drivers to win with that number. The others are James Hylton (2) and Bill Norton (1).

The No. 88

Next year, Alex Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88, a car Earnhardt has driven to nine wins since joining Hendrick in 2008. The No. 88 has had a lot of success over the years, with some very famous names posting wins in it. Four drivers already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame have won Cup races in the No. 88: Dale Jarrett won 28 races with the No. 88, Darrell Waltrip won 26, Bobby Allison took eight wins and Buck Baker won three times.

The No. 25

No, Hendrick won’t campaign the No. 25 — a number it used to run — next year, but consider this: In 2018, the only Hendrick driver who will be more than 25 years old is Johnson, who will turn 43 on Sept. 17, 2018. Byron is 19 years old now, Elliott 21 and Bowman 24. It looks like Hendrick will be set for years to come with a seven-time champion and three young guns.

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News

8 Things Kasey Kahne Had to Say After Losing His Ride

On Monday, veteran Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Kasey Kahne driver was released from the final year of his contract at Hendrick Motorsports, where he has driven since 2012.

Friday at Michigan International Speedway, which hosts Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400, Kahne got to tell the media his side of the story and what the future may hold for him.

Here are 8 things Kahne said at MIS:

Looking for a ride

Kahne isn’t the only driver without a 2018 deal. Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and others are looking for new rides, too. “There are some really good drivers that don’t have a deal done at this time that will probably end up in cars, I would think,” said Kahne.  “I just feel like the opportunities are pretty slim, but I’ve always tried to be really respectful and when I’ve had the opportunity to go fast and win we have been able to win some races.”

A Hendrick alliance

Team owner Rick Hendrick said Wednesday that he’s hoping to find another Chevrolet team to form an alliance with and get Kahne in a car with that team. “I hope we can build something out of that, but I also have been working in my own direction as well on certain things to make sure I just check out everything that is out there for sure,” said Kahne. “I don’t want to miss anything, but yeah, Mr. H. has been really good about where we are at.  I think we are going to come up with something that should work out pretty well.”

Staying in Cup

As far as the future, Kahne ruled out a move to the NASCAR XFINITY Series and said his intention is to stay in the Monster Energy Cup Series. “Just the Cup Series,” Kahne said.  “Yeah, really just the Monster Energy Cup Series as far as NASCAR goes.”

A fresh start

Kahne said he hoped a move to a new team would jump start his career. “I think that it’s all about people again if you can get the people behind you and believe in you and then I believe in them and we work together for the same goal and that is to win races,” said Kahne. “It’s a competitive series it is a super tough series to win in and so many things have to go right for the entire race weekend and then throughout the race.”

Team morale

Now that the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team knows Kahne will be gone after this season, they are rallying behind him. “(Friday) it was cool,” said Kahne. “Everybody seemed good.  We just kind of went to work like always and hope to put together a really strong weekend.”

Mr. H

Team owner Rick Hendrick said Wednesday part of the blame for the disappointing performance of the No. 5 fell on his shoulders. “A lot of what he said this week means a lot to me because to have somebody like Rick Hendrick, Mr. Hendrick, to be on your side, even though I’m not going to be part of his team anymore, to be on your side and the power that he has in this sport and what he has done for NASCAR for this sport for so many drivers and employees over the years,” said Kahne. “To have him behind you is a really good thing.  I respect that. I respect him a ton.”

Playoffs

By winning the Brickyard 400, Kahne punched his ticket to make NASCAR’s playoffs for the first time in three years. But Kahne knows that Hendrick Motorsports will need more speed if he’s to make a deep playoff run. “I think we all know the No. 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and No. 18 (Kyle Busch) have been really the cars to beat the last month,” said Kahne. “The No. 42 (Kyle Larson) right before that was really strong and we have all just been a little bit off of that.  So, we are working hard to get to where we want to be.  The only way I’m going to get there is the people and being part of that.”

Next year

Kahne is optimistic that he can contribute to his next team. “I really think that I can come up with something good and come up with something that will be fun to be a part of and also try to work hard to make that team better than it’s ever been and myself better than I’ve been,” Kahne said. “I still have that mindset and I really hope that something works out to where I can be in a strong car next year and enjoy racing in this series.”

E-MAIL TOM AT tom.@jensen@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary

5 Reasons Why William Byron is the Right Choice to Replace Kasey Kahne

Well, that didn’t take long.

Monday morning, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Kasey Kahne had been released from the final year of his contract as driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet and would be replaced next year with a driver to be named later.

By Monday evening, Adam Stern of the influential and well-respected Sports Business Journal reported that Kahne’s replacement would be William Byron.

Now, Byron moving to the No. 5 next year isn’t official until Hendrick Motorsports says it’s official, but he’d be a terrific replacement for Kahne.

Here are five reasons why:

Image

Byron is everything Hendrick Motorsports likes to project as its image: Clean-cut, polished and well-mannered, Byron might be just 19 years old, but he’s already well seasoned. He has made an overwhelming positive impression for his current sponsor, Liberty University, and will be a great sponsor representative at the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level.

Timing

The timing of this move works on several levels: First, we’re in the midst of a generational change in NASCAR, with a host of veterans retiring and the strongest young talent base in recent memory. It’s also a time of transition at Hendrick Motorsports, with Jeff Gordon already retired, Dale Earnhardt Jr. about to be retired and Kasey Kahne departing.  

Familiarity

Byron knows the Hendrick Motorsports system. He’s driving this year for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports NASCAR XFINITY Series team, which works closely with the Hendrick organization. The Hendrick folks know Byron already and know how he operates and he knows how the team functions. It’s not like they’ll have to break in an outsider.

Economics

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. so eloquently explained it last weekend at Watkins Glen, the economics of NASCAR are changing drastically. No longer can established drivers command $8-$10 million per year because sponsorship dollars are way down. NASCAR contract deals are closely held secrets, but it would not be surprising if Byron’s contract is for substantially less money than the team was paying Kahne.

Winner

All of the aforementioned reasons are valid and important, but none of them would matter a whit if Byron wasn’t a stud behind the wheel. Without question, young Mr. Byron is a wheelman of the highest order.

The numbers don’t lie.

In 2015, Byron won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship with four victories, five top fives and 11 top 10s in 14 races.

Last year, Byron set a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series record by winning seven races as a rookie, along with 11 top fives and 16 top 10s in 23 races. An engine failure at Phoenix was the only thing that kept Byron from winning the Truck Series championship.

Byron has kept up the heat this year. As a rookie in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Byron has three victories, seven top fives and 14 top 10s in 20 races.  Just in the last eight XFINITY races, Byron has two victories, five top fives and eight top 10s. He’s ready.