Johnson's passion for fitness inspires Hendrick teammates
BUY TICKETS: See the races in Las Vegas LAS VEGAS – If you were to break out the bicycle in the infield of any given race track on a Saturday morning or afternoon, you'd likely have some elite company. Matt Kenseth has embarked on both long and short cycling excursions. Kasey Kahne could show up, or Trevor Bayne. But perhaps one of the most familiar faces and leaders among the cycling groups at the track is reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. A seasoned athlete in a variety of athletic pursuits from cycling to running to snowboarding in his new home of Aspen, Colorado, Johnson has accomplished some feats that only experienced athletes could achieve: He and Kenseth completed a 130-mile ride for charity in March 2016 from Asheville, North Carolina, to Charlotte, North Carolina. He celebrated his 40th birthday in 2015 with a 101.2-mile bike ride, and joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kahne for Johnson's first of many triathlons. That first one was in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2012, just one day after competing in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. The driver of the No. 48 Kobalt Chevrolet supplements his regular weekday training with these group cycling or individual running sessions during downtime at the track. "It's easy to sleep in in the motor home or sit on the couch between qualifying and practice and eat," Johnson told NASCAR.com on Friday morning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of Sunday's Kobalt 400. "There's a four-hour window there; you could be out on the bike, go for a run, burn some calories instead of ingesting them." But the group rides at the track accomplish more than just an elevated heart rate -- even with a group of competitive NASCAR drivers riding. "It seems that during the week we're serious about those disciplines, kind of putting in your gym time, your speed work -- the weekend rides are much more (easygoing)," Johnson said. "So, we'll sit side-by-side, chat, talk, talk about life. It's much more of a social thing than really a hardcore ride. "Granted, we do race in Pocono, we do race in upstate New York. There are some areas, what I'm getting at, where there's some serious climbing. And the competitive spirit kind of kicks in and guys kind of try to bury each other and race up mountains." It was the social aspect of physical fitness that became Johnson's main case for his Hendrick Motorsports teammates to commit to a company-mandated workout on a regular basis. "For me, the social component is what has made this last so long for me," Johnson said. "I think we all start a crash diet, we all say we're going to the gym and you're lucky to make three or four months because it's kind of monotonous and not a lot of fun. There's not a social element to it. "So, I pushed hard to set some minimum requirements for our Hendrick drivers and then trying to get us together. Weekend rides, there are some great social media apps that keep you connected with what your friends are doing. You can follow them, they can follow you. The one we like to use is Strava and it's amazing if you can just have a little spin on it and make it a social thing, your interest goes up tremendously. You have accountability and before you know it, you're putting in quite a few hours a week and you're pretty fit." Johnson's teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussed the new workout plan at length on his Dirty Mo Radio podcast Monday. The drivers have set hours for cardio and strength exercises each week that they must complete and log into the Strava app. The drivers also have access to Hendrick Motorsports' top-notch facilities, trainers and nutritionists used by the pit crews, as well as Johnson's own personal triathlon trainer Jamey Yon, to help aid their health journeys. RELATED: Junior talks about his first cycling trip Earnhardt took his first cycling trip with Johnson last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, pulling out the bike that "Seven-Time" gifted him about a year ago. The trip began with the humorous struggle of getting Earnhardt comfortable with the spandex cycling attire. "I told Jimmie, I said, 'Look, I'm going to meet you outside the track,' " Earnhardt said on the podcast. "Ain't no way in hell I'm going to let anybody see me ride through the infield wearing this bike gear, spandex stuff." Johnson smiled at the experience. "I couldn't believe my eyes, to be honest," Johnson said of his reaction to Junior agreeing to a cycling trip. "He was a little worried about the attire, but I promised him you really feel weird standing around other people in street clothes when you're in the attire. When you're in a group of guys, proper attire really makes a big difference. "So, he cleared that hurdle, which I wasn't sure we could get on Ride 1, and through the course of the ride, his comfort grew tremendously. The speed came up and his bike handling skills and stuff came right around. So, he's excited to ride this weekend and looking forward to getting him on a bike again." Hardest part of cycling? Being brave/crazy/stupid enough 2 wear spandex The hills R the 2nd hardest part. Me & our awesome pilot Jeff. pic.twitter.com/qzemyzgKlr — Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) March 11, 2017 Johnson's passion for physical fitness is evident, his love for outdoor activities strong. He uses activities as a way to socialize, train and escape from the stresses of his high-speed career. "It's been really good for me physically, but more mentally on a lot of levels," Johnson said. "I can have an afternoon to clear my mind, I find that all I think about is the race car and I get my thoughts in order and really handle the race car situation to the best of my ability." But as Johnson's interests in the field vary and grow, his passion also has transcended as a way to help others: In 2016, Johnson lent his personal trainer Yon to No. 41 crew chief and longtime friend Tony Gibson and offered to help him get on track physically. RELATED: Crew chief's health boost from Johnson "He's like, 'Look, I've been thinking about you for the last three weeks,' and he said I want to get you healthy," Gibson said prior to the start of the 2016 season. "He said, 'We've known each other since I got into this and you've been a great friend to me.' He said, 'I'm worried about you. I'm worried about your health and I want to see you get healthy.' So I'm like, 'OK.' The next step was we got together and he's like, 'I'll take care of everything, I'll handle everything. We'll use my trainer. You just have to do it.' "So I said, 'You know, if he's willing to go to the length of that and put that much effort into it, then I'm a fool if I don't.' So I took him up on it and I've been losing weight ever since." But while Johnson enjoys helping others achieve their physical goals and has many fitness goals after he's done driving ("there's quite a few endurance races that I want to do from triathlons to mountain bike races," he says), he doesn't necessarily envision a career in personal training after he's hung up his fire suit. "I love helping people -- that's in my DNA," Johnson said. "Fitness has been a hobby of mine, a passion of mine for a while now and I've been able to influence many. But I just enjoy being there for others and tell my story -- maybe I can be there for them." &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Unifirst, Hendrick Motorsports strike 8-year sponsorship agreement
CONCORD, N.C. -- UniFirst and 11-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions Hendrick Motorsports have reached an eight-year agreement that will make the workwear and textile service company a primary sponsor of the No. 5 Chevrolet SS driven by Kasey Kahne . The contract runs through the year 2023. As the new Official Workwear Provider of Hendrick Motorsports , UniFirst will be a two-race primary sponsor in both 2016 and 2017, with the relationship increasing to three primary races annually from 2018-2023. In addition, UniFirst will be a full-season associate sponsor of the No. 5 team. UniFirst will make its Sprint Cup Series primary sponsorship debut later this season with back-to-back races Oct. 23 at Talladega Superspeedway and Oct. 30 at Martinsville Speedway . "UniFirst is excited to be a primary sponsor of Kasey and Hendrick Motorsports ," said Adam Soreff, director of marketing and communications for UniFirst. "This partnership is a great opportunity for our company because Hendrick Motorsports is one of the premier -- and most highly respected -- teams in professional auto racing. UniFirst's broad customer base, which includes 300,000 business locations across North America, employs thousands of enthusiastic NASCAR fans, so this relationship is a natural fit. We're extremely proud to have the UniFirst brand represented in such a dynamic atmosphere." UniFirst is one of North America's largest workwear and textile service companies, providing managed uniform, protective clothing, custom corporate image apparel, and ancillary facility services programs to businesses in virtually all industries. As part of the new relationship, UniFirst will supply work clothing and uniforms to Hendrick Motorsports and sister company Hendrick Automotive Group, which is the largest privately held retail automotive organization in the United States. "When a sponsor feels strongly enough to commit for eight years, it sends a clear message," said Rick Hendrick , owner of Hendrick Motorsports . "There's tremendous excitement about the opportunities our team and our sport present for UniFirst. They have a reputation for world-class service, the highest quality products and services, and having incredible people. We share a similar mindset and culture, and we're looking forward to working together across our entire organization." Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2012, Kahne, 36, has earned three Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berths and five race wins with the No. 5 team. The Enumclaw, Washington, native has 17 career victories, 27 pole positions and 166 top-10 finishes in NASCAR’s top division. "UniFirst will be a great addition to our partners at Hendrick Motorsports ," Kahne said. "They're a reliable company that we've worked with at Kasey Kahne Racing for a long time, so I was happy to hear they are coming on board. I'm looking forward to having them as part of the No. 5 team and working with them in the years to come."
Hendrick Motorsports welcomes 2017 pit crew class
MORE: No. 48 pit crew coach discusses recent pit road mishaps In a building filled with banners, trophies and famed race cars, five newcomers entered Hendrick Motorsports ' Nos. 48 and 88 shop as part of their induction to the decorated four-car organization, carving out their own slice of history. These five young men, coming from various backgrounds, stood together -- a united group -- as part of the Hendrick's 2017 pit crew class for its second annual signing day. Completing the class are: TJ Semke, Mason Harris, Austin Holland, Timmy Hall and Dylan Intemann. The quintet were joined by Andy Papathanassiou, Director of Human Performance, and Keith Flynn, Developmental Pit Crew Director. "To me the reason why we decided on a formal presentation of our pit crew recruits is because this really is, in my explanation, the completion of a dream, Papathanassiou said Thursday, looking at the 2017 class. "And to have something like NASCAR come in … and say, 'Hey, you can fufill your dream of being a professional athlete.' " The goal of this program is to have the recruits work their way up to eventually lining up behind the wall for one of Hendrick's Sprint Cup teams. "Over 100 guys came through and (only) five guys made it," Flynn revealed, highlighting the difficulties of the rigorous program that he manages. One of the inductees, Hall, says his four-year professional hockey career -- Hendrick's first hockey player recruit -- helped him prepare for not only the program, but also the NASCAR industry as a whole. "I think a ton of stuff translated over," the tire carrier hopeful revealed. "Obviously, just the practice and preparation that you are used to with hockey ... there's a lot of hand-eye coordination and hand skills involved. I think that really translates with tire changing, especially." All five Hendrick Motorsports recruits have extensive athletic backgrounds: Semke played football for three years at the University of Kansas; Harris was a four-year football player for the University of South Carolina; Holland briefly provided behind-the-wall support at Roush Fenway Racing ; and Intemann was an offensive lineman at Wake Forest University. Papathanassiou -- and the entire HMS organization -- are confident in this group, envisioning a promising future for the five in their motorsports careers. "They found us as much as we found them. And you're seeing the fruits of the labor of our constant year-after-year recruiting process."
Short-track swing could turn tide on track, in standings
BUY TICKETS: See the races at Martinsville " MORE: Full schedule RELATED: Pre-Martinsville standings " Stage lengths The first short-track swing of the 2017 schedule begins this week at the venerable Martinsville Speedway and even before leaving California’s two-miler last weekend, NASCAR’s best conceded they were eagerly awaiting this portion of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. Gone are the days of NASCAR road course aces, superspeedway specialists or short track experts. Not only has the sport demanded high expectations at every stop, drivers have to perform everywhere at an even greater level with the current points system. April's short track swing features Martinsville's .526-mile oval on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Bristol's .53-miler in three weeks followed by Richmond's three-quarter mile oval to close out the month. And while this portion of the schedule brings a smile to most drivers faces and a sentimental nod to their early careers, it also means a big competitive kick in their anticipation. "I love the short tracks and short-track racing," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has wins at all three upcoming short tracks. "We don't get to do a lot of it, so that makes you love it more. Being able to come to these tracks and knowing you are only going to get to run here a few times, it makes you really appreciate it and work hard. You have to really try to take care of the car to run all the laps and get everything out of it you can." RELATED: Full results for every Martinsville race " Driver stats at Martinsville Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate and reigning seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson may be the happiest guy on the grid when he takes Sunday's green flag. He's at an unfamiliar 17th place in the Monster Energy Series standings with only one top 10 in five races this season so far. However, Martinsville has been his playground, his mecca, his "I got this." Johnson's nine wins there are most among active drivers and he has 24 top-10 finishes in 30 starts. He's led 2,838 laps there -- an amazing 1,475 laps more than any other driver on Sunday's grid. And he's won at Bristol (once) and Richmond (three times) too. "We certainly are not where we want to be right now," Johnson said. "Last weekend at California was so frustrating. Nothing went our way. As a competitor you have to put that stuff behind you and focus forward, so I'm looking forward to getting to Martinsville. " The last race at Martinsville was an amazing finish , a very emotional one for me -- so meaningful -- and it obviously paved the way to our seventh championship. It's a special place for us, it suits my driving style and I wish we raced at Martinsville more than twice a year." Toyota driver Denny Hamlin is another who has shown a real knack for the series' short-track portion of the schedule. He has a career best five victories at Martinsville -- including a remarkable three consecutive from 2009-2010 -- with 17 top-10 finishes in 22 Martinsville starts in all. He also has wins at Bristol (one) and his home track of Richmond (three). RELATED: Hamlin explains why 'feel' is more important than lap times His Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is the defending winner of the spring Martinsville race and has 10 wins total at the three upcoming venues including five at Bristol. And while drivers such as Johnson, Hamlin and Busch seem to have had immediate and bountiful success on the high action short tracks, Martin Truex Jr. could say his good feelings have been an acquired taste there. In his first 18 starts at Martinsville, for example, he had an average start of 18.1 and an average finish of 23.1. In his last four races -- with Furniture Row Racing -- he's had an average start of 5.5 and an average finish of 9.3. "From my standpoint Martinsville has gone from a puzzle to a place where I continue to feel more comfortable," said Truex. "We've had some good runs there recently and this weekend will be a good test to see where we stand with our short-track program. "We know we can get it done at the intermediate and superspeedway tracks." It's been a familiar refrain in the garage. In the past, a driver might show a real flair for a certain type of competitive surface. But in modern NASCAR every week, ever track is an opportunity that can’t be overlooked. There's no denying the "back home" good feeling of this upcoming short track portion of the schedule, however. It's the ultimate in challenge and gratification, a showcase for short tempers and a source of deep pride. "To me, the toughest part of Martinsville is you just never have a moment to breathe," said Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Dillon. "You have to be on your game nonstop for 500 laps because somebody's on you, or you are on top of somebody the whole time, and there's just no room for error." And that's exactly what fans are counting on. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick Motorsports ’ Martinsville story, a tale of two tracks
There is a team and a track sharing an emotional bond in southern Virginia. Go inside the story of triumph and tragedy that surrounds Hendrick Motorsports and Martinsville Speedway.
Hamlin: A win is only acceptable thing at Martinsville
BUY TICKETS: See the races at Martinsville " Full schedule There have been more disappointments than celebrations for Denny Hamlin at Martinsville Speedway, but that doesn't make the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series venue any less prominent in the eyes of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. "A win is the only thing that's acceptable when I get to this race track," Hamlin, 36, said during a visit to the legendary oval earlier this month. "I know I take a lot of pride in coming to this race track and running well." Hamlin, a native of Chesterfield, Virgina, has made 403 starts in NASCAR's top series and won 29 times. Five of those victories have come at Martinsville, the .526-mile track that's been hosting NASCAR races for 70 years now. The track's short straightaways and tight, flat turns put a premium on track position and hearken back to the series' earlier days, when contact among competitors was expected, if not always tolerated. "That's something not many tracks can say," Hamlin said of the facility's longevity. "The history here, you look at all the old photos of this race track. Even though a lot has changed around the race track, the race track itself has not changed. The configuration hasn't changed; it's so very similar to how it used to be many, many years ago." Hamlin has earned more top-five (12) and top-10 (17) finishes at Martinsville than any other track on the schedule and between 2008-'10 he won four of six races there. He's a perennial contender during the twice-yearly visits to the track, but the driver of the No. 11 Toyota admits that with confidence comes a bit of anxiety. "Because if I don't win it's not a successful weekend," he said. "That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, especially in today's competition, to go out there and expect to win, because all the drivers are so good." They're good, but few have been able to dominate at a particular track the way Hamlin and a handful of others have through the years at Martinsville. Richard Petty owns the track win record with 15 career victories; Darrell Waltrip made off with the unique clock trophy 11 times. More recently, former Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson piled up nine victories apiece. Johnson is still around to try and add to his total and won the fall race last season. RELATED: Every winner at Martinsville " Hamlin's stats there The gains enjoyed by those drivers are harder to come by today, according to Hamlin, because of widespread data sharing that goes on among the individual organizations. When it comes to competition, there are few secrets in the garage and even fewer among teammates. "So the advantages you had have been whittled down," he said. "To continue to put the expectations of coming here and winning no matter what (may be) a little unrealistic but it's a goal we always set." For Hamlin, a successful weekend at Martinsville starts and ends with "feel." It's what has put him in contention on most occasions and helped put him in the winner's circle here more than anywhere else. "This is one of the very few race tracks I never look at lap times," he said. "Lap times mean nothing to me here. Whether we're first in practice or 20th it really doesn't matter to me because I know the feel in the car that I've got to have to win." Hamlin has won at least one race every season since he began running full-time in the series in 2006. He will be looking for his first win of 2017 when the STP 500 gets underway Sunday (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). "It's been circled on our calendar," he said. &amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Hendrick Motorsports welcomes new class of pit crew members
CONCORD, N.C. -- Hendrick Motorsports is in the midst of playoff season and enjoying the success of three of its drivers who are competing in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . And although one of NASCAR's most successful racing teams is focused on finishing off the 2015 season with another championship, they are also working on building a brighter future for years to come. The Hendrick organization hosted its first Signing Day for its developmental pit crew program Wednesday at its lavish No. 48 and 88 shop. Their introduction came against the backdrop of the shop's banners and trophies, honoring achievements set by the teams of Terry Labonte , Jeff Gordon , Jimmie Johnson and more. The seven men who participated in Signing Day are all former collegiate athletes and were chosen out of over 150 candidates for the annual recruitment process. The newcomers hope to pursue awards of their own, similar to the ones they are constantly surrounded by and to become a part of the company's lucrative 31-year history. Andy Papathanassiou, Director of Human Performance at Hendrick , opened the ceremony saying, "It's the people (here) that make the difference. And if you treat your people well they're going to want to perform not only for themselves but for you and for the company and for the team, and not only is that the best solution, it's the only solution to truly become a champion and to keep that championship mentality going." Another thing Papathanassiou highlighted was that the seven chosen are "not just here because they are big, strong guys … they're here for the way they think." And they all come from diverse backgrounds, most of which have little to do with NASCAR. Mike McClure, a former WWE prospect, was an All-American wrestler at Michigan State University and, too, an All-American in academics. McClure was at Michigan International Speedway for a race where he was recruited for the program. After receiving debilitating injuries in his journey to become a professional wrestler, McClure pursued the opportunity with Hendrick and is now working on honing his craft as a fueler and jackman. "Even on day one, I could tell they were genuine and they cared about the people here," explained McClure. Another recruit, Rod Cox, too, had "briefly seen NASCAR on TV," but knew he found his passion during his training at Hendrick . Cox, who played football at North Carolina State University and earned a degree in civil engineering, was convinced to join the organization after Coach Keith Flynn, Developmental Pit Crew Director, spoke to his football coach. "I met Coach Flynn and he was the greatest guy I had ever met," said Cox, an aspiring tire changer. "Everyone around here loves their job. I wake up in the morning like 'Man, I can’t wait to go practice and do my drills and lift weights and just enjoy everyone here.' " At the end of the event, Papathanassiou told NASCAR.com about how he is excited about the future and looking forward to the next chapter at Hendrick , with a new driver joining its Sprint Cup roster in Chase Elliott . "I think what's next for us is … we will have to redefine ourselves as a company. It's very exciting, especially with a guy like Chase Elliott . We could be on another 20-year run … another 20-year dominance."
Albert: Hendrick , JGR, Penske should be prime players Sunday
RELATED: Daytona schedule " Starting lineup DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There's no such thing as a clear-cut favorite for Sunday's Daytona 500. After six days of on-track activity for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series , several camps can lay claim to having an edge, but singling out one driver is akin to a roulette wheel's spin. "We come down here a lot of years. You kind of pick a guy," said Jamie McMurray , the 2010 champion of the 500 who will start third in this year's running. "If he finishes, he's going to be there in the end. I think there's 10 guys that have a legitimate shot to win this year." What is clear is that Sunday's winner of the Great American Race (2 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will have the benefit of a fast horse, potential assistance from teammates and the combination of an adept spotter and a frequently-used mirror. And if conventional wisdom holds serve, Team Penske , Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports should be the prime players in that game. Preliminary races -- Thursday's Duel qualifiers and last weekend's "The Clash" exhibition from a busy Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway -- have shown that a strong leading car has the ability to change lanes and stem the aerodynamic momentum from an onrushing line of cars. The Duels showed the powerful but precarious nature of leading: In the first 150-miler, polesitter Chase Elliott staved off the pack with a series of blocks to lead the final 24 laps. In the nightcap, Dale Earnhardt Jr . -- who led for 53 circuits -- zigged too late when Denny Hamlin zagged with two laps left, and Hamlin led an organized aero charge to the checkers. MORE: Logano wins 'The Clash' " Duel 1 results " Duel 2 results "Because the way the lanes form, it's just power in numbers," said Elliott, the 500's Coors Light Pole Award winner for the second straight year. "It's a power in what cars are lined up in what row, how they're stacked against you, whether they're two-wide or three-wide behind you. There certainly are guys that do a good job. Once they get out front they're tough to get by. We see that all the time at these places." RELATED: Elliott joins elite in back-to-back 'Great American Race' pole wins Momentum can be an intangible in other sports, the vibe of a winning streak or the underlying oomph of the tide turning in a certain game. In NASCAR -- and especially in the restrictor-plate genre of stock-car racing -- it's a palpable phenomenon. While aerodynamics can be a great equalizer for underdogs, the power of Penske's pair of Fords driven by Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski stands out. But so does the muscle flexed by defending 500 champion Hamlin and his flotilla of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. And it's unwise to count out Hendrick & Co.; which monopolized the front row in qualifying with Elliott and Earnhardt. MORE: Penske proves plate tracks take more than just luck One thing is all but certain, especially when it gets to crunch time with the Harley J. Earl Trophy on the line: The cat-and-mouse between the race leader and the pack will be more exacting, with far more take than give. "I'm sure that will be amped up Sunday," Elliott said after his Duel win. "I think it was similar to what you'll see."
Hendrick Motorsports sweeps Saturday Martinsville practices
RELATED: Logano leads opening practice at Martinsville Practice 3 recap " Practice 3 results Jimmie Johnson led the final Sprint Cup Series practice at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday, topping the leaderboard with a speed of 97.108 mph. The Hendrick Motorsports driver completed his fastest lap on his fourth go-around of "The Paperclip" track out of 67 laps. Johnson has eight wins at Martinsville, tying with Jeff Gordon for the most victories among active Cup drivers at the Virginia short track. Kevin Harvick was second to "Six-Time" with a high speed of 96.721 mph in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Brad Keselowski (96.721 mph), Paul Menard (96.711 mph) and Dale Earnhardt Jr . (96.538 mph) rounded out the top-five fastest. Defending race winner Earnhardt Jr. was fastest in Saturday's opening session. Polesitter Joey Logano was seventh-fastest in the closing session at 96.504 mph. Logano was the fastest in Friday's opening practice. The Team Penske driver is going for his fourth consecutive win, along with a ticket to the Championship 4 Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . Kyle Busch was the slowest of the eight-driver Chase field, ranking 26th-fastest (95.854 mph). Denny Hamlin , Martinsville spring race winner, was ninth-fastest (96.386 mph). The Sprint Cup Series returns to the track on Sunday for the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at 1:15 p.m. ET (NBCSN/Live Extra, MRN, SiriusXM). Practice 2 recap " Practice 2 results After qualifying 22nd on Friday, Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s No. 88 picked up some speed for Saturday's first practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The Hendrick Motorsports driver topped the leaderboard in his Chevrolet SS with a fast lap of 96.998 mph. Next was the No. 78 Chevrolet of Martin Truex Jr ., the fastest during this session among the remaining eight Chase contenders (96.879 mph). Rounding out the top three was Ryan Newman , who circled the .526-mile track at 96.874 mph in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Polesitter Joey Logano showed speed again today, snagging the fourth spot with a high speed of 96.755 mph in his No. 22 Team Penske Ford. The No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Denny Hamlin landed in the fifth position after posting a quick speed of 96.731 mph. Tony Stewart , who finished eighth, left the session with significant damage to his No. 14 after making contact with the wall. Stewart will start the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 in a backup car. Kasey Kahne , who wrecked in qualifying on Friday, will also start in a backup.
JR Motorsports ramps up with 2017 expansion
RELATED: Driver Tracker " On the move: Changes in store for 2017 The encore for an organization that placed both of its full-time drivers into the Championship 4 field in the inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase last year has the chance to be even greater. JR Motorsports has that unique possibility, an opportunity granted by not sitting still. Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier return to the fold after prosperous debut years with the team, but that's where the offseason status quo ends. JRM plans a full-court press for the upcoming XFINITY season, expanding from two to four full-time drivers in an all-out push to bring home the championship it barely missed out on in 2017. "To have that opportunity to go up against three teammates, to see the growth in our shop, to see the growth in our teams, it's really, really fun to watch," Allgaier said. "I feel like if you came back here next year and said we'd have four cars from JR Motorsports in the final four, it wouldn't surprise me at all." A four-car sweep for the Homestead-Miami finale in November would mean stellar introductions by the two newest faces in the JRM stable: up-and-coming teenager William Byron, a NASCAR Next alum, and 30-year-old vet Michael Annett , back in XFINITY after a three-year stint in NASCAR's top division. The addition of Byron, a 19-year-old prospect in the Hendrick Motorsports system, actually counts as a reunion. The Liberty University student was a former driver for JRM's Late Model program on the weekly and touring level. His teammates have already seen what he can do in top-level equipment. Byron won seven times in his rookie NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, with only a crucial engine failure in 2016's penultimate race keeping him from the championship fight. It's the reason Sadler has touted him as "a star of the future" and why Allgaier echoed the thought, calling Byron "an absolute class act and an amazing talent." Kelley Earnhardt Miller -- who co-owns JRM with her brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr . -- spoke with tones of regret in describing how Byron got away in late 2015, snapped up by Kyle Busch Motorsports and seemingly earmarked for an upward career arc in the Toyota pipeline. That changed last August when team owner Rick Hendrick brought him back into the Chevrolet camp, cognizant of the creeping advancement in age of his Monster Energy Cup Series roster. "For that to all come back full circle, we're real excited about it," Earnhardt Miller told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio last month. "He's just a great kid and a good family, and his story is just so cool -- doing the computer racing [on iRacing] and then telling his dad he wants to race and then not racing until he was 15. It's just a good story. But Mr. Hendrick deserves the credit there, trying to look at his next moves because he's going to have some drivers that are on the retirement horizon in the next several years, so smart move for him to make all that happen." Said Byron: "I just remember their ultimate goal for me when I started racing Late Models was so I could race an XFINITY car there. In a weird way, I got back to that and it's going to be really cool to return next year." To accommodate the escalated XFINITY Series growth, which Earnhardt Miller said has maxed out the team's resources, JR Motorsports has closed its truck series operation. Cole Custer , who drove the JRM No. 00 truck the last two seasons, has since moved on to Stewart-Haas Racing 's XFINITY program. As in past years, JR Motorsports plans to run an extra XFINITY entry in select races with Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne behind the wheel for two races each. But at the heart of its growth are the core four XFINITY regulars, a direction chosen in light of new driver participation guidelines that go into effect in 2017. The continuity will keep JRM from scrambling to shuffle its roster once the Chase playoff begins and the limits on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers moonlighting in the XFINITY ranks become more stringent. But the organization will still need to make inroads against stout competition, especially Joe Gibbs Racing , which won 19 of the 33 XFINITY races last season and took the other two spots in the four-driver championship round. Reminded of the heady assignment a day after last season's finale, Allgaier was unwavering. "Even with the Gibbs guys," Allgaier said. "I don't know, I just feel like with the packages that we've seen of what's a possibility for the XFINITY Series next year, the work that we're doing at the shop and the cars and just all the things that we've been working on, I really think next year's an opportunity for us at JR Motorsports ."
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