Hemric’s Cup arrival right on time

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s 8 a.m. and the first rotation for Wednesday’s annual Daytona 500 media day featured drivers Joey Logano, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Hemric.

Larson, at 26, is the youngest. Stenhouse, 31, is the senior member of the group.

Together, their numbers include 28 victories, one Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship and 768 career starts.

Two of the starts belong to Hemric, 27 and a rookie of the year candidate this season.

Late to the Cup party?

In an era when the age for drivers making the jump to Cup continues to get younger, Hemric says simply, “I know the way I’ve done it is the only way I could do it.”

He made two Cup starts last season with Richard Childress Racing, at Richmond, Va., and Charlotte. In 2015-16, he ran full seasons in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series; in ’17-18 full seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

He didn’t win races in either series and that’s a point folks seem to point out. But he did accumulate plenty of experience and maybe that’s something that gets overlooked.

Others failed set the woods on fire in lower series before going on to remarkable Cup careers, by the way.

On Sunday, Hemric will make his first start in the Daytona 500. He’ll be driving the No. 8 Chevrolet fielded by RCR. Fifth fastest in qualifying on Sunday, his starting spot will be determined based on his finish on Thursday’s opening qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

“I’ve always believed that timing is everything and for whatever reason my time was not to get to this point until now,” Hemric said Wednesday. “I can’t rewrite history … I just have to do my thing when I get the opportunity and that’s what I’ve tried to pride myself (on).”

Guys such as Logano, Larson and Stenhouse “have had incredible breaks throughout their careers, no different than I have; (those breaks) just came at different times,” he said. “The end goal was to get here no matter what it took and that’s why I’m sitting here.”

Logano is the defending series champion and he’s seen the other side of the coin – that of beginning a Cup career at a very young age and then watching helplessly as it crumbled all around him.

At 18, Logano was pushed into a Cup ride, willingly of course, at Joe Gibbs Racing when Tony Stewart departed. Four years and one win later, Logano was shown the door.

“It’s just different, right?” Logano said of the timing of Hemric’s arrival. “And I think it’s, in a way, probably good for him because a lot of times – I know just from my experience, if you start too early and you make a name for yourself the wrong way or you don’t make it and you get put back down to Xfinity or Trucks, that’s usually it. It’s over, right? And that’s the end of your Cup career, most likely.”

Logano knows because he was that guy.

“I started too young, I made a lot of mistakes,” he said. “I didn’t succeed. I lost my job and God … gave me an amazing shot to race for Roger Penske. How does that happen?

In Hemric, he says he sees someone who is “more prepared, he’s more ready, he’s more mature.

“He’s been through some stuff in his racing career,” Logano said. “He’s more ready to make that big step, which I think is probably a smart move on his part.”

Austin Dillon, 28, is Hemric’s teammate at RCR. He’s also the defending Daytona 500 champion and winner of Xfinity and Truck Series titles in 2013 and 2011, respectively.

The ’19 season will be his sixth full-time season in Cup.

He and Hemric have been friends since racing in Bandolero and Legends cars at Charlotte Motor Speedway as teenagers.

“The first time I met him he was in an orange firesuit, had orange hair over his ears, no shirt on,” Dillon said of Hemric. “His firesuit was hanging at his waist and he was walking down pit road. I was like, ‘Man, who is this guy?’ We were like 13-14 years old. I was like, ‘Whoever that is, he’s cool. I want to be friends with him.’

“From that point on we were pretty much buddies.”

Reaching the top rung of the racing ladder at 27 shouldn’t pose any problems, Dillon said, noting that “He’s here. He’s done his job. He’s young enough to do it for a long time and hopefully he’s successful at it.”

Hemric is seen as a throwback, a driver who paid his dues in lower series and worked his way up to earn a shot at the big time. Money didn’t put him in the seat of the No. 8.

He’s also from Kannapolis, N.C., and that’s Dale Earnhardt country and maybe the two are cut from the same cloth or maybe they aren’t. Where one was raised doesn’t determine talent.

If the the image of a dues-paying, hard-working, blue collar driver is the one that’s been put out there, Hemric said, then “it’s 100 percent accurate.”

He’s no Lone Ranger – he’ll quickly tell you he pulls for fellow driver Ryan Preece because “I feel like his situation is very similar to mine … he builds his own race cars and he’s grinding to get to the race track week in and week out no matter what it takes.”

Preece, 28, landed his own Cup opportunity this season, taking over the No. 47 ride at JTG Daugherty.

Hemric won’t quibble over the timing of his own arrival. He’s here now and that’s all that matters.

“Call it what you want,” he said, “but it got me here.”

A fresh start with the usual twists and turns

NASCAR began its 2019 season Sunday with qualifying for next week’s Daytona 500 and the non-points Advance Auto Parts Clash taking place at Daytona International Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports teams swept the top four positions in qualifying, an admirable achievement particularly in light of the organization’s overall struggles in 2018. That’s five in a row, perhaps an even more impressive feat, for HMS teams by the way.

But it was an achievement soon overshadowed.

The big story, of course, was the finish of the Clash.

Officially, the end came after rain hit the track for the third time, forcing officials to pull the plug with 59 laps of the 75-lap race completed.

Unofficially, it ended after one of two things happened:

• Jimmie Johnson wrecked race leader Paul Menard

or

• Race leader Paul Menard crashed while trying to block Jimmie Johnson.

Maybe it was just “one of them racing deals” we’re always hearing about. The race, and the track, have certainly had their share through the years.

What we do know is that once the smoke had cleared, 17 cars were listed as having been involved in the crash.

It was a 20-car field so this is one instance where it really is easier to just list everyone who wasn’t involved. That would be Kurt Busch, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

The three finished second, third and fourth. Fast closing but not fast enough to catch Johnson, who was making his ’19 debut with new sponsor Ally and new crew chief Kevin Meendering.

“I didn’t hit his rear bumper cover,” Johnson said afterward, meaning he didn’t slam the No. 21 Ford out of the way.

“I’m here to win races … but I didn’t drive through a car and create a wreck.”

While he said he hated that others wound up with torn-up race cars, the seven-time series champion reminded everyone that “I have a split-second decision to try to win a race, and I set up the pass and got position on him clean. 

“I don’t know what triggered his car wobbling and then the accident started from there,” Johnson said.

Menard said he wasn’t aware of what caused the wreck until after watching a replay of the incident.

“I felt like it was aggressive side-drafting,” Menard said. “I got turned to the inside and hooked to the right and all hell broke loose.”

It was a disappointing ending for Menard, who had led 51 laps up to that point.

It was a relief for Johnson, the Hendrick Motorsports racer who is still looking for a points-paying win after getting shut out in 2018.

For everyone else, it was nothing more than an expensive afternoon.

Punctuated by the type of finish that surely surprised no one.

• William Byron, the 21-year-old who won the Xfinity Series title in 2017 and was quickly hustled up to Cup to take over the seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet at HMS, will start on the pole for the 61st running of the season-opening race.

He’ll be joined on the front row by HMS teammate Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Byron sped around the 2.5-mile layout at 194.305 mph; Bowman clocked in at 194.154 mph.

Johnson and Elliott were third and fourth fastest, respectively.

Only the front row is locked in for the Daytona 500, with the bulk of the starting lineup determined through next Thursday’s two 60-lap, 150-mile qualifying races. Byron will start on the pole in one, Bowman out front in the other.

Byron may be a youngster, but he’s got a veteran in his corner. Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to his seven titles and all but two of his 83 career wins, is heading up the No. 24 team this year.

It was Byron’s first career pole in 37 attempts in the Cup Series.

The fastest non-Hendrick car was the No. 8 Chevrolet of rookie Daniel Hemric (Richard Childress Racing), who checked in fifth. Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano was sixth (Ford) and Martin Truex Jr., making his first start with Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) seventh.

For the record, Daytona 500 pole winners and Daytona 500 winners haven’t been the same in quite some time, since 2000 as a matter of fact.

Busy days ahead for Decker

MOORESVILLE, N.C. – There will be drivers who will run more races in 2019, but it’s unlikely anyone will run in as many different series as 21-year-old Natalie Decker.

ARCA? She won the pole in the season-opening event at Daytona International Speedway last year and returns for this weekend’s race looking to improve on a fifth-place finish. Last month she was fastest in preseason testing on the 2.5-mile superspeedway in her debut with the DGR-Crosley Toyota team.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series? A 12-race schedule awaits the Eagle River, Wis., native, her debut scheduled for the same legendary DIS layout later this month.

Toss in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, where she is scheduled to make one or more starts, beginning with Bristol Motor Speedway.

What about road racing? Decker has a five-race Trans Am schedule with Ave Motorsports that consists of stops at Daytona, Watkins Glen, Sebring, Road American and Virginia international Raceway (VIR).

Had enough yet?

The diminutive Decker hasn’t. She’s also one of 28 finalists for the all-female W Series, a European-based racing series that will debut this year and will feature 18 racers (plus two alternates) running a six-race schedule in Formula 3 entries.

The final cut comes next month following a second test session/tryout in Spain.

“I wanted to think I was good enough to advance to the next round, but I was up against all road racers,” Decker said of her W Series experience. “I was shocked but at the same time I had a feeling I could make it to the next round. All 54 (racers) that were there were amazing but the 28 that are moving to the next round … this next round is going to be hard.

“I’ve got to study for Daytona, I have to study for (Trans-Am) cars, I have to learn the new F3 car that I don’t even know anything about. I’ve got a lot of studying to do.”

Which begs the question- why? Why run all over the country, and potentially outside it as well, competing in various racing series? Why not focus all that talent and attention on a single series?

“Some people probably wouldn’t want to be doing what I’m doing,” said Decker, who will run stateside this year for the DGR-Crosley outfit. “Because I’m really spreading myself out. But I’m really looking forward to it.

“The big thing is everything I going to learn in all the different cars I’m driving.

“Ever since I was really little, a lot of older racers would tell me ‘Drive anything and everything you can because seat time is seat time. And you’ll learn so much from all the different types of cars.’”

David Gilliland, operator of DGR-Crosley, said he’s seen “flashes of what it takes to be competitive” in Decker.

“It takes something so different to get her comfortable in a truck or a vehicle than anybody else,” Gilliland said. “From the pedals and the steering … getting it to where she is comfortable and can be 100 percent.

“I’m really looking forward to giving her the opportunity that I think she needs to be as successful of a race car driver as she can be.”

A former Xfinity Series winner, Gilliland, 42, started his organization for folks just like Decker. The group fields everything from Late Models to Trucks.

It’s also competitive. Tyler Ankrum won the 2018 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title while teammate Tyler Dippel finished second.

And that’s what helped draw her to DGR-Crosley after an ’18 season with Venturini Motorsports.

“First of all, when they would show up at the track, they were stupid fast all the time,” she said of DGR-Crosley.

“But a big reason is that everything is under this roof here. You’ve got Truck, you’ve got K&N, you’ve got ARCA. I’ve got the same owner, the same team I can work with, so I won’t be bouncing around my sponsor (N 29 Technologies).”

She’s only been with the group a few weeks but thus far she said she likes what she’s seen.

“I think it’s a good fit,” Decker said. “I already love it.”

The season-opening Lucas Oil 200 ARCA race is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. ET at Daytona and will air on FS1.

Gen 7 could expand OEM involvement

CONCORD, N.C. – Word that NASCAR officials will begin taking wins away should a team fail post-race inspection wasn’t the only news that came out of Monday’s media gathering at the sanctioning body’s Research and Development Center.

Chief among the other topics – the new Generation 7 NASCAR model, scheduled to debut in 2021, has helped pique the interest of outside auto makers.

“It’s ongoing,” Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR, said Monday about talks with other auto makers not currently involved.

“I mean, you never know until obviously something happens, but I think we’ve stated our goal is to get to five (auto manufactures).

“We continue to have dialog. I have a call (Tuesday) with one, was at the 24 Hours (in Daytona) having discussions … I think the potential … design and where we may go in the future from an engine standpoint has certainly opened up those conversations. No guarantees but it’s something we continue to pursue.”

The 2019 rule package includes a new areo platform on the outside and engine package (tapered spacer) inside the cars.

“I can tell you that the work that’s already been done on this project has already opened doors for a number of manufacturers to have conversations that we haven’t been able to have in the past,” he said.

“There is still work to do … but I think it’s really opened the door up to have a new NASCAR in terms of what you may see on the track, what you may see under the hood in the future as well.”

The rollout of the Gen 7 car is scheduled for the 2021 Daytona 500, while a new engine package would follow in 2022, “to give everyone enough lead time,” O’Donnell said.

Three auto manufacturers currently compete in NASCAR – Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota.

Joey Logano gave Ford its first driver’s championship since 2004 when he won last year’s title and Ford won the manufacturer’s championship as well.

Toyota joined NASCAR’s Cup Series in 2007 and won back-to-back manufacturer titles in 2016-17. Driver championships have gone to Toyota drivers Kyle Busch in 2015 and Martin Truex Jr. in 2017.

Chevrolet enjoyed a run of 13 consecutive manufacturer titles from 2003-15.

Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson was the last Chevrolet driver to win the championship, earning his record-tying seventh title in 2016.

The most recent departure of a manufacturer came at the end of 2012 when Dodge ended its NASCAR involvement. Ironically, Dodge driver Brad Keselowski captured the series’ championship that season.

• Ben Kennedy, the former racer and great grandson of NASCAR founder William H.G. France, has been named Managing Director, Racing Operations and International Development.

Previously manager of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Kennedy will also “play a really pivotal role in our international development,” O’Donnell said, which includes racing interests in Canada, Mexico, Europe and China.

• Kennedy was on hand to unveil the Triple Truck Challenge for the Truck Series, a three-race program that will award race winners a $50,000 bonus for one win, $150,000 for winning two of the three races and a staggering $500,000 should a drive win all three.

The Challenge will be in play for races at Texas Motor Speedway (June 7), Iowa Speedway (June 15) and Gateway Motorsports Park (June 22). Drivers earning points in either the Cup or Xfinity Series are not allowed to compete in the Triple Challenge events.

• The opening round of qualifying at all tracks other than superspeedways and road courses has been shortened from 15 minutes to 10 minutes, according to Scott Miller, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR. Second and third rounds will remain 10 minutes and five minutes, respectively.

Miller said the break in between rounds has also been shortened from seven minutes to five minutes. The change is in effect for all three national series.

A monumental move for NASCAR

CONCORD, N.C. – NASCAR took a monumental step Monday when officials announced that going forward, infractions uncovered during post-race technical inspections will now lead to an immediate disqualification of the car involved.

For the first time in decades, a winning entry could be stripped of a victory.

“The bottom line is that car will be disqualified,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said during a media briefing at the sanctioning body’s research and development center.

“Everything that goes with a win goes away. We’ll obviously inspect second-place and a random. Second place (if cleared) will receive all of the benefits of winning that race. Playoff bonus (point), everything will go with that.”

O’Donnell called it a change in the NASCAR culture.

“And that comes with a lot of challenges,” he said. “We’ve tried to do it one way and it hasn’t worked. …”

“We have also heard loud and clear from our race fans … (complaints about) Tuesday post-race penalties, Wednesday post-race penalties, the storyline dragging out. …

“I share those same feelings, I think all of us at the R&D share those same feelings. The objective for us was always, candidly, not to have those. … Unfortunately, we went down a path where that became a storyline.”

Officials have wrestled with how to handle the issue of cars failing post-race technical inspection for years. They haven’t taken a victory away from a “winning” entry in one of the three major series since 1995 and that was in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the sanctioning body’s top division, a race winner hasn’t been stripped of victory due to a technical infraction since the early ‘60s. (There have been rare instances of drivers losing a win for non-technical issues.)

O’Donnell said post-race inspection, which previously consisted of on-site checks as well as a more intensive tear-down at the R&D Center two or more days after the race, will now be completed at the track following the event.

“We expect it to be about 90 minutes at the track” O’Donnell explained, after which time the winner will be declared official. Should a winning entry be disqualified, the team has the ability to appeal.

“If that does happen, it will be an expedited appeal that will take place at the latest Wednesday,” he said. “When we leave the race track Sunday night, we’ll know who the winner is from our perspective.

“We understand the challenges … but we’ve also made it very clear to the teams over the last six months that this is where we’re headed. Bring your stuff right. Let’s concentrate on the best drivers in the world going out there and beating each other on the track versus the wind tunnel. And we think this is going to do that.”

Engines will still be subjected to inspection at the R&D Center as well as randomly chosen cars from time to time.

Previously, any failure during post-race inspections, whether at the track or later at the Research and Development Center, would likely result in a fine, suspension of a crewmember (crew chief and/or car chief) and a loss of points.

The process has continued to evolve. Infractions were given different levels (L1, L2 and L3) based on severity. Wins became “encumbered,” meaning any benefits such as points or having the win qualify the driver for the playoffs were taken away.

Now, officials have made it simple.

According to Scott Miller, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, “all of the owners and all of the teams are tired of the same thing that we’re tired of and that’s playing all these games.

“And the only way to stop these games is what we’re doing.”

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season officially opens Feb. 17 with the 61st running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

Package, teams put to test at Las Vegas

NASCAR teams will get their first on-track crack at the 2019 rules package Thursday and Friday as Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts the season’s first organizational test.

Fourteen teams from the Monster Energy Cup Series are scheduled to participate as well as four from the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Each of the three auto makers, Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, will get track time with individual wheel force cars as well.

For Las Vegas, one of eight 1.5-mile tracks hosting Cup races, the rules package will include the use of a smaller tapered spacer that will reduce engine output from 750 to approximately 550 horsepower and aero ducts which divert airflow from the front of the car.

Other aerodynamic changes are a wider radiator pan (located underneath the front of the car), larger spoiler (8 inches tall, 61 inches long) on the rear deck and a two-inch overhang on the front splitter.

The package is scheduled to be used in 16 of the 36 races in 2019, for events at Las Vegas, Auto Club, Texas, Talladega, Kansas Charlotte, Michigan, Chicago, Daytona (July) Kentucky and Indianapolis.

A similar package, minus the aero ducts, will be used in five events, at Atlanta, Pocono (twice), Darlington and Homestead.

The package for 14 races at shorter tracks and road courses will feature a larger tapered spacer that won’t curtail horsepower and no aero ducts. Tracks hosting those events are ISM (Phoenix), Martinsville, Bristol, Richmond, Dover, Sonoma, New Hampshire, Watkins Glen and Charlotte’s Roval.

Only the season-opening Daytona 500, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 17, will feature the same aero package as was used in 2018.

The hope is that the changes will generate closer competition and more side-by-side racing much like what was seen in last year’s All-Star Race when a similar package was used.

Chad Knaus, the seven-time championship-winning crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, said recently that the Las Vegas test is important, but “when you go to a test like that everybody holds their cards pretty close to their chest.”

“Nobody is going to know exactly what you’ve got 100 percent,” he said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how we as a company and how Chevrolet in general stacks up under this new package with the new horsepower.”

Knaus won seven titles as crew chief for Jimmie Johnson. The 2019 season will be his first as crew chief for William Byron.

Johnson, now paired with crew chief Kevin Meendering, will take part in the Las Vegas test for Hendrick’s four-car organization. Only one team per organization is allowed to take part in an organizational test.

“We will be completely connected for sure,” Knaus said. “There will be two representatives from the No. 24 car going to help the No. 48.”

In addition to Johnson, other drivers scheduled to participate in the test are: Landon Cassill (StarCom Racing No. 00 Chevrolet), Kurt Busch (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford), Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet), Ryan Newman (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford), Ty Dillon (Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet), Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford), Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota), Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford), Bubba Wallace (Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet), Ryan Preece (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet), Cody Ware (Rick Ware Racing No. 51 Chevrolet) and Matt DiBenedetto (Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Toyota).

Xfinity Series drivers participating are Zane Smith and Noah Gragson (JRM Motorsports Chevrolet), Riley Herbst (Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) and Chase Briscoe (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford).

Practice is scheduled for 11 a.m.-10 p.m. ET Thursday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday.

For fans in the area interested in attending the test, the grandstands and infield will be open.

NASCAR.com will offer a live, four-hour show from the track on Thursday beginning at 11 a.m. ET.

Logano to ‘keep looking out the windshield’

CONCORD, N.C. – He said he hears it often and it comes from his team owner, who happens to be Roger Penske, so you can bet Joey Logano takes the advice to heart.

Penske, 81, has a pair of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships as a team owner. His open-wheel teams have won a stunning 17 Indianapolis 500 titles. Overall, his racing organizations have more than 500 victories. When he talks racing, it pays to listen.

“One of the things he says to me a lot and that I remember is not to trip on your press clippings,” Logano said Monday during a media outing at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “Meaning don’t be looking in your rear-view mirror too much about something good you did because your competition’s catching you.”

Logano, 28, has certainly piled up his share of noteworthy accomplishments since joining the Cup circuit in 2009 as a teenager. Winning the 2018 Cup Series title has only added to the stack.

Prior to last season, he was an 18-time winner at NASCAR’s top level and a championship finalist two of the previous four years. Last year, he added three more wins, another trip to the championship round and this time, a series title.

He became the 33rd driver to win NASCAR’s ultimate prize and one of the youngest. He seems appreciative yet unfazed by the accomplishment. Now that the calendar has turned to 2019, anyway.

This year won’t be about defending his championship, he said, but about trying to win another one. No driver has won back-to-back titles since Jimmie Johnson in ’09-10.

“We went to New York City to ring in the new year,” Logano said of he and wife Brittany, “… we were standing outside, the ball dropped, they were singing ‘New York, New York,’ I looked at her and said ‘Well, that was a great year. It’s over.’

“And it is. An amazing season, the birth of our child (son Hudson Joseph). It’s going to be tough to top it. But the facts are you have to keep looking out the windshield.”

Much will be different – there’s the new aerodynamic rules package for ’19 as well as a model change for Ford teams as the Mustang has replaced the workhorse Fusion. But a lot remains the same – his team, headed up by talented crew chief Todd Gordon, returns intact.

And the goal of winning the title? That’s also the same.

“The goal is the same; how you get there is different and will be every year as rules change or formats change … but the goal is the same,” he said. “Whether we had seven championships like Jimmie or one like we do now or none like last year.

“Like I said, I enjoyed it, it was great, but I feel like as soon as the season starts – maybe I’m wrong … I think of it as that’s over now. People say, ‘you’re the reigning champion through the whole year until there’s another champion.’ Maybe but I kind of look at it as it’s over as of Jan. 1 and it’s game on again. … I look at it that way and I think my race team does too.”

• The 2018 accomplishment hasn’t been forgotten, just put aside. Meanwhile, the large, unique trophy is a hard-to-miss reminder.

Logano said each member of the team is celebrating the title by keeping the trophy in his or her possession one week at a time. Logano refers to it as the trophy “tour.”

“They can do whatever they want with it; I said, ‘I don’t care, do whatever you want, take a cool picture, eat Cheerios out of it, I don’t care, whatever you want to do,’” he said. “Kind of like the Stanley Cup. It’s been fun to see some of those photos … definitely a fun experience for them because it was all our first championship. None of us had ever won a championship before on our race team. So that was a very special thing.”

HMS playing catchup as ’19 beckons

CONCORD, N.C. – It’s mid-January and it’s cold outside in spite of the bright sunshine and maybe a lot of folks haven’t given much thought to the start of the NASCAR racing season.

Those folks don’t work at Hendrick Motorsports or any of the other racing shops located in the Carolinas.

On this Tuesday, indoors and out of the cold, Jeff Andrews, vice president of competition for Hendrick, is leading a group of media members on a tour of the complex and one begins to wonder how these folks ever lost a race.

The HMS campus is big and if you took all the square footage from all the buildings here and added it all together it would be a rather large and rather impressive number indeed. Hundreds of thousands of square feet.

Still, it’s hard to picture that in one’s mind, so consider this: to get from Point A where the tour began to Point B, the first stop, everyone boards a bus. See what I mean? It’s that big.

But size and success don’t always go hand in hand. Hendrick Motorsports fields four full-time teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and in 2018, only one of the four went to victory lane – that of three-time race winner Chase Elliott.

It was the first since 1993 that the Hendrick organization won fewer than four races.

For a group that has won an average of eight races per season since then, the outcome was surprising and disappointing and some will tell you it was an aberration.

Perhaps.

The driver lineup, which consisted of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson, Xfinity series champion William Byron, Elliott and Alex Bowman, was younger than any Hendrick lineup that came before it.

The organization was one of several making the switch from the Chevrolet SS to the new Camaro ZL1.

The on-site optical scanning station, similar to that used by NASCAR to inspect cars at the race track, wasn’t installed and operational until mid-season. Other equally elaborate in-house inspection processes may have been too restrictive, according to some HMS officials.

But that was ’18 and Tuesday was all about ’19 and you can tell just by wandering the halls of HMS that the organization’s struggles were not due to a lack of effort or equipment.

• The gym is buzzing with activity as crewmen work on strength and conditioning and coordination under the watchful eye of Andy Papathanassiou, the director of human performance, and his staff. College teams likely don’t train any harder and the facilities, which include inside and outside workout areas, are first-rate.

• The chassis shop is an assembly line of noise as employees cut and weld and grind all while keeping one eye on the calendar. New cars are being built, others carried over from the previous season are being refurbished. Daytona is just around the corner.

• Things are just as busy in the CNC shop where multiple pieces of machinery form and fashion a variety of parts and pieces – and that, not coincidentally, leads right into the engine shop where dynos are running and engines in various stages of completion line the walls and the hallway.

The Hendrick engine department supplies the pieces for its own four teams, and two additional two-car Monster Energy Cup Series teams. It also supplies engines for five NASCAR Xfinity Series teams. Its’ busiest time of the year seems to be whatever time of year it happens to be.

• Because there are no longer separate shops housing two teams each on the HMS campus, cars for all four Cup teams eventually wind up in what was once known as the 48/88 shop. The OSS is located here and it handles a hefty workload as cars are scanned multiple times while they go through various stages of being built.

• The paint shop is down the hallway and there are research and development areas elsewhere and there’s administration and the museum/team store and you look around and suddenly it’s not hard to understand why there are some 600 employees here.

HMS is not the only big racing operation in NASCAR; there are others that are as big and there are those that are smaller and teams from both groups have been just as successful at one time or another.

But Hendrick teams have won more than 250 races and last season the group struggled as a whole and that caught a lot of folks around here off guard.

Maybe it shouldn’t have. HMS has seen its win total drop for four consecutive seasons as others have stepped up and improved their own teams. Wins and championships have gone elsewhere.

But this is 2019 and there’s a season full of opportunities just ahead. The HMS campus is bustling, racing to catch up and get ahead at the same time.

Farewell to the Woodchopper

I have no idea how many people I have interviewed through the years while covering NASCAR, but it’s been more than a few.

There are a handful that I have felt truly honored to know and spend time with now and then.

Having just a small slice of their time is something I will always cherish.

Glen Wood was one of those folks.

The legendary NASCAR team owner passed away this morning. He was 93.

If there’s an auto racing hall of fame that doesn’t have Glen Wood in it, it’s not much of a hall of fame. He was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011, the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame a decade earlier and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2002.

If there’s a Good Guy Hall of Fame, Glen Wood is in it, too.

His racing hero was Curtis Turner and it was the opportunity to see the fellow Virginian race on the sand at Daytona Beach that sent Wood south for the first time in 1947.

Speed Weeks wasn’t Speed Weeks when he began making the trek and NASCAR wasn’t NASCAR. He continued making the annual pilgrimage until just last year.

Seventy years is a mighty long time.

As a driver, Wood won four times at NASCAR’s top level. He raced with and beat Rex White and both Pettys, Lee and Richard, and Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson. Joe Weatherly and Buck Baker and David Pearson, too.

He beat ‘em all at Bowman-Gray, another piece of NASCAR history.

You might not know it, but he won five more times in NASCAR’s Convertible Series, including a victory at Soldier Field in Chicago in 1957.

What most folks likely do know about Glen Wood is that he was a team owner in NASCAR, and a very successful one. Along with brothers Leonard, Delano, Clay and Ray Lee, Wood Brothers Racing was one of the most innovative operations in racing.

His team counts 99 career victories among 18 drivers. If you’re a driver and in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, there’s a chance you drove for the Wood Brothers on at least one occasion – nine legends who currently grace the Hall did so, anyway.

Maybe one of the most telling quotes ever uttered about Glen and the Wood Brothers came from Pearson, the former driver and fellow Hall of Fame member, in 1974. Forty-three of Pearson’s 105 career wins came with the Stuart, Va.-based organization.

“If the Wood Brothers have prepared your car, then as soon as you fasten the seat belt you can count on going to the bank Monday morning,” Pearson told the LA Times.

Pearson was one of five drivers to win the Daytona 500 while driving the famed No. 21 for the Wood Brothers. His victory came in the 1976 edition which featured one of racing’s all-time greatest finishes.

Tiny Lund, Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt and Trevor Bayne also won Daytona 500 titles while driving for the team.

Today the organization is ably run by Glen’s children, sons Eddie and Len and daughter Kim. They learned their lessons well and they learned from one of the best.

Glen Wood was a sawmiller by trade turned racing legend because he and his brothers were just that good.

He enjoyed an amazing racing career and an even more amazing life. The family-run outfit he founded all those years ago alongside Buffalo Creek on Lone Ivy Road has grown and moved and shrunk and moved and survived.

It will continue on. Proudly.

It will just never be quite the same.

Ford officials look to avoid new car blues

CONCORD, N.C. – Ford ended a 13-year title drought in NASCAR’s top series this past season, but its teams will be starting from scratch in 2019.

Gone is the Fusion, the model raced by Ford teams since 2006 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and now replaced by the Mustang.

Also gone is the 2018 rules package as NASCAR has implemented changes that will lessen horsepower and increase downforce, a turnabout from previous years’ rules movements.

With so much change ahead, can Ford teams avoid the potential pitfalls of rolling out a new car, adapt to a new rules package and still remain title contenders?

“I think we’re in a good place,” Pat DiMarco, Ford Performance NASCAR Supervisor, said Wednesday during a media gathering at the Ford Performance technical center. “We think we’re in the ballpark. But with the new aero changes that NASCAR has (put in place), there’s really no baseline for it.

“That’s good and bad. The good part of it is our competitors are in the same boat, trying to develop the new rules package. (It’s) bad because we don’t have a good baseline.”

The Fusion, a model that, with an upgrade or two along the way, has been the manufacturer’s workhorse since 2006. Joey Logano’s 2018 Cup championship with Team Penske was the first and the last for the model.

Roughly one-third of the NASCAR Cup field in ’18 consisted of Ford entries.

Ford officials witnessed the struggles of rival Chevrolet teams this past season, struggles that were due in part to a model change.

After winning 10 of 14 championships between 2005-16, Chevrolet organizations made the move from the SS model to the Camaro ZL1. Its teams won just four of 36 points races, the fewest since 1982. Meanwhile, Ford teams won 19 times. Toyota entries accounted for the remaining 13 race wins.

“Obviously we watch our competition closely and for sure saw that Chevy struggled,” Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance, said. “What fully led to those struggles … I would assume they understand better than we do.

“A lot of speculation is that it was due to the new body, but it was also potentially due to the new rules or the new rules enforcement with the Hawkeye (inspection system).”

The Hawkeye system uses cameras to scan each car and provides a much more accurate measurement of the body than hand-held templates previously provided.

The Chevrolet falloff in performance was something few expected. Seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson went winless for the first time in his Cup career; Kyle Larson, a four-time winner in ’17, also failed to find victory lane.

Rushbrook said his group wants to avoid taking such a step backward.

“I know Chevy didn’t want to take a step backwards,” he said. “I know there are no guarantees on that. We’ve got a new body, we’ve got new aero rules, so we’ve got a lot to continue to learn but that’s the intent, to be competitive from the first race.”