DO THE MATH: Hendrick Rarely at Factor at Richmond

This week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at Richmond International Raceway for the last event before the playoffs. During the Chase’s 12-year history, the venue has served as a battleground for last chances. Perhaps it is the perfect place because of its parity. In the last nine events there, Chevy, Ford, and Toyota have walked away with three wins each.

Five drivers are looking to clinch their Chase spot tonight. For some, their chances are greatly affected by one factor – will there be a new winner or repeat winner? Anything can happen, but before the green flag flies here are some stats to consider.

• If there is a repeat winner tonight, @jamiemcmurray, @RyanJNewman, and @JeffGordonWeb will clinch regardless of finishing order. Each have solid stats at Richmond. In the past five races, they collectively have ten top-10s and six top-fives finishes. McMurray, Newman, and Gordon will start 31st, 13th, and 23rd tonight.

• Paul Menard and @ClintBowyer are in the red zone and will need a solid finish tonight to clinch their Chase ticket. Bowyer has had recent success here. His last two finishes were third and ninth respectively. In comparison, Menard has struggled, scoring finishes of 18th and 15th. He will begin 22nd while Bowyer will start 26th.

• Richmond does not have favorites. Even the best at the Virginia-based track have faced difficulty. @KyleBusch has the most wins among active drivers, four, along with the top average finish, 7.4. However, his past five races there do not reflect such success. In four of those events, he finished 14th or worse. With summer momentum on his side, will Busch get back to his winning ways at Richmond? He will start fourth.

• Looking specifically at the past five races at Richmond, @KevinHarvick leads the pack with a victory and average finish of 6.0. However, “The Closer” has led only 45 laps. In the same amount of time, @keselowski has led 648 laps, the most, but posted an average finish of 14.4. At Richmond, the winner is not decided until the checkered flag flies. Harvick and Keselowski will start sixth and third respectively.

• Penske Racing was able to sweep both Richmond events in 2014. However, of the two drivers, @joeylogano has the better recent stats and could be a threat for the win tonight. In the past five races, he has accumulated four finishes of sixth or better and led a total of 140 laps. He will start from the pole tonight.

• Here is the breakdown of the last ten Richmond events by organization victories:
Joe Gibbs Racing – three (2010, 2011, 2012)
Penske Racing – two (2014)
Richard Childress Racing – two (2011, 2013)
Stewart-Haas Racing – one (2015)
Roush-Fenway Racing – one (2013)
Michael Waltrip Racing – one (2012)
Noticeably one of the series top organizations, Hendrick Motorsports is not included. They have not been to victory lane at Richmond since 2008. Will they break that trend today?

NASCAR Cup Series

Kahne Looks to Return to Victory Lane at Bristol

A glance at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings may result in a double-take. While @KevinHarvick leads, there are many surprises with the names that follow. One of those surprises includes fifth-place @KaseyKahne who, seven races into 2015, is the highest-ranking Hendrick Motorsports driver. He leads last week’s winner @JimmieJohnson by 14 points.

High expectations surrounded Kahne when he joined the organization back in 2012. While the No. 5 team has captured a total of five victories in three years, they have struggled with consistency. The driver has managed to make the Chase each year but finished 12th and 15th in the past two seasons.

However, team owner Rick Hendrick is known to be skilled at improving his teams through personnel changes. During the off-season, the team gained a new crew chief in Keith Rodden. It appears the duo has gotten off on the right foot.

His average finish, 11.4, is reminiscent of the beginning of the 2013 season where he accumulated an 11.7 average finish in the first seven races. That year, he had already claimed a win at Bristol Motor Speedway, where the Sprint Cup Series will compete in the Food City 500 today.

After scoring his only victory at the half-mile track in 2013, the Enumclaw, WA native followed up with a second-place finish later in the year. Additionally, four of his last five starts have resulted in a top-10 finish.

This weekend, the No. 5 team has shown they will be formidable competition, standing on top of the board in both first and second practice.

“My first qualifying attempt was through the middle (line) and I didn’t quite have the speed that I wanted, so the next two were on the bottom,” Kahne elaborated after qualifying eighth on Friday. “I felt like I picked up (speed) down there. The track has been interesting. To me, there has been a little less grip up high… I was a little surprised by that.”

“(The track) is still a long ways from how it will be on race day, and during the race it will change as well. Maybe it’s a good thing; maybe we will be able to race all over the track…”

Kahne could be considered a dark horse for this event as he looks to become the second Hendrick Motorsports driver to grab a winner decal and a spot in the Chase.

NASCAR Cup Series

Chase Elliott Reacts to Jeff Gordon Decision, Cup Timetable

(EXCLUSIVE) CORDELE, Ga. — Despite widespread speculation that Chase Elliott is the heir apparent for the retiring Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 car, Elliott said on Saturday night that Gordon’s decision “doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

In his first public remarks since Gordon broke the news on Thursday, Elliott explained how the decision affects his path to the Sprint Cup Series.

“I really don’t think so,” Elliott said when asked if Gordon’s decision changed his timetable. “… I think Jeff can race as long as he wants to and he will be competitive as long as he wants to as well. I don’t ask any questions. I just go about my business and see how that works out.”

Elliott said he was “shocked” when Gordon announced that he was stepping away from full-time competition at the conclusion of the 2015 season. But he remained tight-lipped about his future plans when asked about his connection to the storied No. 24 Chevrolet.

“I think I was as shocked as anyone,” Elliott said. “You know, Jeff is definitely one of the best. He had a phenomenal season last year and I expect him to have another good one this year.”

When Kasey Kahne signed a three-year extension to remain at Hendrick Motorsports in November, it created a log jam of sorts at the Sprint Cup level. The team had five drivers under contract — Kahne, Gordon, Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson — but only four available full-time spots, the maximum allowed by NASCAR. But with Gordon making his announcement on Thursday, the log jam appears to have cleared up.

Elliott will run a partial Cup Series schedule for Hendrick this year in addition to his full-time XFINITY duties. On the Cup side, he will be paired with veteran crew chief Kenny Francis, who served as Kahne’s crew chief ever since his sophomore season back in 2005. Keith Rodden took over the No. 5 team after the season.

The 19-year-old offered nothing but praise for the crew chief that will oversee his Sprint Cup debut.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Elliott said. “I’ve known Kenny for a long time. We’re kind of finalizing some things on what few Cup races that we’ve been talking about and Mr. Hendrick has been talking about. We’re still talking about it and hopefully we’ll have some things we can announce here soon.”

Just how many Cup races they will enter remains to be seen.

“We’re still working on it,” Elliott said. “So not yet.”

NASCAR Cup Series

Hendrick Teammates Slam at Sonoma, Call it Racing

By Matt Weaver — Hendrick Motorsport teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson left Sonoma Raceway first and second in the championship standings and ran just as close to each other on the track during Sunday’s Toyota Save Mart 350.

The two made contact during several points of the race and appeared noticeably aggravated with each other. Tony Stewart joined the fray in the closing laps and three champions, with a combined 13 titles between them, started bouncing off each other.

That’s where the most damage was done, Stewart rear-ending Johnson, sending his No. 48 into the back of Gordon as the four-time champion tried to escape. Gordon went on to finish second but Johnson was forced to settle for seventh as the contact with Stewart damaged his handling.

Johnson was satisfied with yet another top-10 and has put the volatile road course in his rear-view mirror.

“We had a great car but just got drilled by the (Stewart) and my steering was off from there,” Johnson said. “We had a great car and the guys with fresher tires got us at the end.”

Gordon had not seen a replay of the contact with Johnson at the time of the post-race press conference but believes it was just a case of hard racing on a temperamental road course. He admitted that he was upset when Johnson hit him and that’s why he retaliated, not knowing that Stewart had triggered the ordeal.

“At the moment you’re just mad that it happened so I took it out on my right front fender but did more damage to my car than it did to his. Then I calmed down and we just went back to racing and I was able to get him. He kind of got into it with whomever, Ambrose in front of him, and I got a run on him, but I was able to make a clean pass.

“I don’t like to make judgment until you see the video but we raced hard and we had a great race and banged with a bunch of guys, but I thought it was all just in good racing.”

Gordon leads Johnson by 25 points in the standings but Johnson leads all Sprint Cup drivers with three victories compared to Gordon’s one. The six-time and defending champion currently holds the provisional top seed in the Chase Grid.

Development Journalists

Team Hendrick Is Steady And Strong

By Stephanie Adair – Hendrick Motorsports has been uncharacteristically quiet at the start of the 2014 season. With the exception of the No. 88 team, they have not been at the top of the headlines lately. This doesn’t mean that the organization is doing poorly. In fact, three of the four teams have finished in the top 10 every race this season.

Here is an analysis of each of the team’s start to the season and how they may perform during the next few races.

No. 88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has achieved his best start to a season in his career this year. After winning his second Daytona 500, he placed runner-up in the next two races. As the No. 88 team rolls into Bristol, can they keep their top five streak alive?

His career stats at Bristol Motor Speedway and the next three tracks have been steadily improving. In the last two races at each of the four tracks, Earnhardt Jr. placed in the top 10 six of those times. He finished sixth and tenth at Bristol, third and second at Auto Club Speedway, second at Texas Motor Speedway, and eighth at Martinsville Speedway.

Look for the No. 88 to continue being competitive and capture their second win of the season soon.

No. 48 – Jimmie Johnson

The six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has not been making waves early in the season like his teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Nevertheless, Johnson has been competitive. He placed fifth in the Daytona 500 and followed up with two sixth place finishes.

Bristol Motor Speedway has not been one of Johnson’s best tracks. In 24 starts, he has one win, 13 top 10s and a 15.2 average finish. However, the 38 year-old is a stellar competitor at the next three tracks on the series schedule. He holds a 5.7 average finish at Auto Club Speedway, 5.3 at Martinsville Speedway and 8.7 at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson has also collected a total of 16 wins among those tracks.

If the performance of the No. 48 matches his previous stats, the team could threaten to take the points lead by the end of the seventh race.

No. 24 – Jeff Gordon

The four-time Sprint Cup champion has his most competitive start to the season in more than five years. In the first three races, Jeff Gordon has posted three top 10s to include two top five finishes.

This driver’s last five starts at Bristol Motor Speedway have produced mixed results with three top 10s and two finishes outside the top 30. His past five races at Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway show similar patterns. With the current momentum, the No. 24 could be a serious contender in both races.

The team would specifically be a top pick at Martinsville Speedway where they are the defending winners. Gordon has also posted four top 10 finishes in the last five races there.

Will the No. 24 team find redemption after two seasons of adversity?

No. 5 – Kasey Kahne

After finishing 31st in the Daytona 500, Kahne rallied back placing 11th and 8th respectively in the next two races. With tracks ahead where he has performed well, the 32 year-old hopes to capture his first season win.

The No. 5 team has been competitive recently at each of the next four tracks. Last year they nearly swept both races at Bristol, gaining a victory in the spring and a second place finish in the fall. Kahne has three top 10s in the last five races at both Texas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway. At Martinsville Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports’ best track, the driver placed in the top five twice in the last three races.

Keep an eye on the No. 5 team as they strive to gain steam this season.

Hendrick Motorsports has had a solid start to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Watch for the organization to claim their 220th win very soon.

Stephanie Adair is a Popular Speed Development Journalist