LOUDON, N.H. — Jimmie Johnson smacked the wall first and Chase Elliott quickly followed the champion’s miscalculated route when his car slammed into about the same spot. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers traded their Chevrolets for John Deere golf cart rides to the medical center.
Even on routine laps in practice, the hits kept coming Friday at Hendrick Motorsports.
At first glance, team owner Rick Hendrick’s organization, long the class of NASCAR, has had a nice season with three drivers in NASCAR’s 16-car playoff field.
But Hendrick hasn’t been much of a player this season, winning just four races in a season of major transition behind the scenes and in the car. Hendrick gave underachieving Kasey Kahne the boot, effective at the end of the season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has trudged through a forgettable final season. Chase Elliott is still winless in his Cup career and his career-best finish last week at Chicagoland was tainted because his team cheated.
There was more Hendrick upheaval this week in the pits. Kahne and Elliott will have new voices calling the shots at New Hampshire: Kahne has a new crew chief for the final nine races and Elliot’s was suspended for a race by NASCAR.
In the tale of the tape, only seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has had a decent season. But even his stats come with a bit of an asterisk: Johnson’s three wins are his only three top-five finishes this season.
“This year has been tough for our company,” Johnson said Friday. “Last year was tough, but we found a way still to get to the championship and the head table in Las Vegas. This year has been tough again, but there is a lot of change going on internally. I think directionally, we’re making some great changes and obviously the addition of the two new drivers will shuffle the deck a bit.”
New Hampshire hardly seems like an elixir to get the team rolling — Hendrick drivers have led just 14 laps at the track over the last seven races.
Elliott suffered a setback to his championship hopes when NASCAR penalized the No. 24 team for a modification to his Chevrolet in the opening round of the playoffs. The finish is now considered “encumbered” by NASCAR and Elliott does not keep a playoff point he earned with a stage victory at Chicagoland.
Crew chief Alan Gustafson was fined $25,000 and suspended one race, and car chief Joshua Kirk also was suspended one race. The team was docked 15 driver points and 15 owner points.
Other playoff drivers were not impressed with the decision.
“That was a big penalty,” playoff driver Ryan Newman said to laughter.
Denny Hamlin, who had Xfinity and Cup wins at Richmond ruled encumbered by NASCAR, called the penalty levied against Elliot, “a misdemeanor.”
“NASCAR didn’t deem that a very big penalty, so there must not have been any intent there. I guess it was all an accident,” he said.
The loss in driver points dropped Elliott from sixth place to eighth place in the postseason standings. There are two races remaining in the opening round of the playoffs.
The issue with Elliott’s car surrounded a piece of tape applied to the rear spoiler in what other teams believed was an effort to gain more downforce. Photos and videos were presented to NASCAR that appeared to not only show the tape, but also a crew member removing the tape following the race.
“We’re going to use whatever is available to us,” NASCAR executive Jim Cassidy said.
Veteran crew chief Kenny Francis replaced Gustafson at New Hampshire. Elliott took the blame for the wreck.
“That is not what we needed; we are behind this weekend now, so that is never good,” he said. “I hate to put everybody in this situation.”
HMS replaced Kahne crew chief Keith Rodden with Darian Grubb, who led Tony Stewart to a NASCAR championship in 2011, for the rest of the season. Kahne has been with Hendrick Motorsports since 2012, but the team bought him out of his contract for next season. He’ll drive next year for Leavine Family Racing in the No. 95 Chevrolet Camaro. Kahne, who earned his playoff spot with a win in the Brickyard 400, is 15th in the standings and in danger of being among the bottom four drivers cut from the playoffs next week.
Alex Bowman will replace Earnhardt in the 88 and William Byron takes Kahne’s spot in the 5. Bowman (24), Elliott (21) and Byron (19) will surely lean on the 42-year-old Johnson in 2018. Just two years ago, Hendrick, who was not available for comment, fielded a lineup stuffed with veterans Johnson, Earnhardt and four-time champ Jeff Gordon.
Hendrick underwent shuffling behind the scenes this summer when longtime general manager Doug Duchardt, who helped lead and shape the organization for 13 years, resigned and the front office was restructured.
“It hasn’t been a hostile environment by any stretch, but without a doubt there has been time and effort devoted in areas other than fine-tuning race cars,” Johnson said. “I think the added responsibility to some, responsibility shifting to others, the collaborative work involved to elevate the company, is only making us stronger and better. And I think we’re going to net out in a great spot in the end.”
Though Hendrick’s cars have struggled to find speed, Johnson would never be counted out. If he holds the Cup trophy over his head at Homestead, Hendrick’s struggles will largely be forgotten.
“Winning does supersede all,” Johnson said.
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