Top teams struggle to stay there
BRISTOL, TENN. >> Keeping a dynasty seems even more challenging than creating one. Just ask Hall of Fame car owner Rick Hendrick.
The NASCAR titan has fielded 11 Sprint Cup champions over the past 21 years, won 242 Sprint Cup races and just two seasons ago had all four of his star drivers— Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne — in the 16-team championship chase.
These days, Johnson is Hendrick's only surefire contender locked into the chase, although he's got others knocking on the door. Hendrick understands it's a time of transition for his proud, powerful organization.
"You sign guys and you can't believe that Jimmie Johnson, or Dale or Jeff Gordon are 40 years old," Hendrick said. "But time moves on."
And brings change.
Gordon retired last year, although he has driven the past four races for Earnhardt, who is recovering from a concussion that has put his playoffs in doubt. Chase Elliott, Gordon's replacement, stands 12th in points and is a good bet to keep his spot in the chase. Kahne, at 17th, needs a victory to guarantee moving on.
"I think everybody's looking for that next superstar," Hendrick said. "And if you're not willing to invest in the future, then you're going to be in a bind when the time comes."
Hendrick took steps toward that last week, signing 18-year-old truck series leader William Byron to race Xfinity cars next season. In Hendrick's eyes, Byron is that budding star who'll keep the organization chasing checkered flags for a long time.
Byron raced trucks for Kyle Busch Motorsports and looked to have a future at Joe Gibbs Racing, the current power player in NASCAR. But with Busch, the defending Sprint Cup champion, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin all in their 30s (the fourth member is 44-year-old Matt Kenseth), there may not be room for advancement at JGR.
David Wilson, president and general manager, Toyota Racing Development, USA, said Byron was a talent they hated to lose. "I don't think we were anticipating the next step this soon," he said. "I don't think William was anticipating it this soon."
Don't fret for Toyota, which is developing several young drivers. Xfinity driver Erik Jones will advance to Sprint Cup with Toyota team Furniture Row Racing next year.
Daniel Suarez, a 24-year-old JGR driver, was part of NASCAR Next and its Drive for Diversity program. He became the first Mexican-born driver to win a NASCAR race when he took the Xfinity race at Michigan two months.
All, though, will have to wait their time. The JGR quartet — think of the Golden State Warriors on wheels — have won 10 of 23 races this season and are all locked into the playoffs for a championship run.
Edwards, the group's newest member, said the level of cooperation between very competitive teams and drivers keeps all of them sharp.
"Yeah, we're running really well, but it's not one thing, it's a very good foundation of teamwork and it all starts with Coach Gibbs," Edwards said. "It's cool to be a part of it."
Roush Fenway Racing, with 135 Sprint Cup wins and two championships, has also dealt with changes in recent years and the need to find young talent. Once a perennial title contender, the organization that featured 2003 title winner Kenseth and Edwards is crossing its fingers looking for one chase entry.
Former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, 25, stands 15th in points, but would get knocked out if race winners Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher both maintain their spots inside the top 30 in points.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the 28-year-old who's 19th in points, was second Sunday to Kevin Harvick at Bristol Motor Speedway, the highest finish for a Roush Fenway driver this season. Stenhouse said although no one at RFR is satisfied with this year's results, he thinks strides have been made in returning to the top.
"We passed some cars that were running (well) and leading laps throughout the race," Stenhouse said.
Buescher, 25, was last year's Xfinity champion and is on an extended run in Front Row's affiliation with Roush Fenway. His win at Pocono last month put him in playoff position and he moved up to No. 30 — the required placing to make the Chase — with his fifth place at Bristol. A few more strong showings at Michigan, Darlington and Richmond the next few weeks and Buescher will be racing for a title in his first full Sprint Cup season.
"From the Ford camp side, we know we've got a little bit of work to do yet, and we all know who's been dominant at all these tracks this year," Buescher said. "And we're working to get ahead of that group."
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