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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."
Elliott: Hendrick's recent surge a group effort
RELATED: Dover on-track schedule " Chase Grid DOVER, Del. -- Chase Elliott 's average finish during the six-race stretch from Sonoma in late June to early August at Pocono was a sour 27.67. His past six races? 10.3. The Hendrick Motorsports rookie certainly appears to be over his summer slump. "I was really proud of the way we ran last weekend," Elliott said Friday at Dover International Speedway . "We ran inside the top five the majority of the day. That was a huge improvement for our group. Loudon is a terrible race track for me, so I was really happy with just the fact that we were able to be kind of in that group." Still in his freshman year in the Sprint Cup Series, this marks 20-year-old Elliott's first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup appearance. He's joined in the 16-car playoffs by teammate Jimmie Johnson , who has been a part of each Chase since its inaugural run in 2004. Like Elliott, Johnson's No. 48 team also struggled throughout the summer, but appears to be back to its form of running in the top bracket. Even the non-Chase cars of Kasey Kahne (No. 5) and Alex Bowman (No. 88), fill-in driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr ., have shown speed in recent weeks. The teamwide improvements beg the question: Has the Hendrick Motorsports organization found something in time for the Chase? Elliott thinks it's bigger than that. "I know that our engine department has been working really hard," Elliott said. "I think that you see their improvements across the board, not just Hendrick cars, but I have a lot of respect for Mr. ( Rick ) Hendrick and everybody at the engine shop for making their engine program so fair … I think when you see an improvement in the engine shop you are going to see that across the board and I think we've seen that the past couple of weeks. I think there is definitely something there." The No. 24 shop individually has also done its part to put together the jigsaw that seemed to puzzle the Hendrick group in the summer weeks leading up to the Chase. "I know Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and our group has been pushing really hard on that front trying to improve, trying to get the best stuff we can get pumped out of the shop and to the race track," Elliott said. "I think it's a little bit of both to be honest with you and I think we are moving in the right direction on some items that I think we’ve been missing. That is encouraging to me." An encouraged Elliott has elevated his team to ninth of 16 on the Chase Grid, 16 points ahead of the cutoff line. Sunday's race at Dover International Speedway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the first elimination race of the season that will narrow the field from 16 to 12. Based on recent trends, Elliott's chances at advancing to the next round are strong, provided he's able to tame the Monster Mile, a track where he finished third in May. And from there, the rookie could go all the way to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "I 100 percent think our group or Jimmie's group could make it," Elliott said on the possibility. "I feel confident in that. I think we've been fast enough these first two weeks to do it, but obviously you have to have some things go your way throughout this deal and you've got to execute your races and try to stay mistake free."
Great Clips extends relationship with Hendrick , No. 5 team
CONCORD, N.C. (Sept. 20, 2016) -- Great Clips Inc. will continue its sponsorship of Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 5 Chevrolet SS team of driver Kasey Kahne in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a contract extension through 2018. The two-year agreement covers the 2017 and 2018 seasons and secures primary sponsorship of the No. 5 Chevrolet SS for 10 events annually. Great Clips, which joined Hendrick Motorsports as a partner in 2012, also will be a major associate sponsor of the No. 5 team each year. The world's largest salon brand, Great Clips became a first-time Sprint Cup primary sponsor with three races in 2013. The program grew to 10 primary races annually in 2014. "We are very pleased to extend our relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and with Kasey through the 2018 NASCAR season," said Terri Miller, senior vice president of marketing and communications, Great Clips Inc. "Kasey has been a member of the Great Clips family for over 13 years and is a great ambassador of our brand. He embodies the same qualities and values that are synonymous with Great Clips -- loyalty, family, dedication and a passion to succeed. "We have built a successful partnership with Hendrick Motorsports over the last several years that has allowed us to activate and elevate our brand and partner programs to a new level, and we are excited to be able to continue that into the future." 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 165 top-10 finishes in NASCAR's top division. "Great Clips has a very strong culture," said Rick Hendrick , owner of Hendrick Motorsports . "The company cares deeply about relationships with their customers, franchisees, stylists, corporate staff and partners. We’ve enjoyed working together to build an effective program, and it's been terrific to see the Great Clips business grow over that time. We're committed to their success and look forward to the future." Minneapolis-based Great Clips, which has more than 4,000 locations and 1,200 salon owners who employ 40,000 stylists throughout the United States and Canada, has a long history with Kahne. Since 2003, the company has supported his efforts as both a driver and car owner across multiple racing series. "Great Clips has believed in me throughout my career," Kahne said. "They're a big part of the No. 5 team, and we feel like members of their team, too. It's been an awesome partnership, and I'm grateful for their commitment and support. It means a lot to represent them on and off the track."
Hendrick signs Byron to multi-year pact, earns XFINITY ride in '17
William Byron's NASCAR career accelerated again this week with the legendary Hendrick Motorsports team announcing Thursday it has secured a multi-year contract with the 18-year old driver, who will compete full-time in the XFINITY Series beginning with the 2017 season. The arrangement is in partnership with JR Motorsports, which will field Byron as an XFINITY Series regular. It is similar to the situation for young driver Chase Elliott , who won the 2014 XFINITY Series championship driving for the JRM team before moving up to the Sprint Cup Series ranks with Hendrick this season. "Being with Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports has always been a goal of mine," Byron said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "I grew up a Jimmie Johnson fan, so it's really a dream come true to be part of the organization. It's really neat also that I grew up in Charlotte (North Carolina) and they're down the road in Concord. I've been to the shop a few times as a fan." Byron said he signed the deal on Tuesday, prior to Wednesday's NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway . Hendrick called Byron "a few weeks ago," according to the driver, to start the conversation. This is a huge nod to Byron's already head-turning NASCAR career. He has a series-best five wins in the Camping World Truck Series this season driving for reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch 's team and he leads the championship standings by a healthy 37 points over Daniel Hemric after Wednesday night's race at Bristol. All this while Byron is currently enrolled as a freshman at Liberty University. "William is a special person and a special talent," Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. "It's been impressive to watch him come up through the ranks and have success at every level. What he's already accomplished this season has been remarkable. "On top of all his ability, he's a terrific young man from a great family, and we think he has a very bright future with our organization." Byron won the 2015 NASCAR K&N East championship earning four victories and three pole positions leading more than 40 percent of all laps run in the series' 13 races. And Byron does have experience competing for the Hendrick and Earnhardt ownership group. He won two races driving a JR Motorsports late model in the 2014 and 2015 seasons -- his first times in a full-size stock car. "I owe so much to Dale Jr. and everyone at JRM for taking a chance on me in 2014," Byron said. "Looking back, I know none of this would've happened without that opportunity. I was there during Chase Elliott 's championship season and got to learn a lot. I know what they're capable of, and I'm going to work really hard for them." JR Motorsports currently fields cars for Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier in the XFINITY Series as well as a third car that is shared by multiple drivers and referred to as its "All-Star" car. There is no word yet whether the team will make the third car just for one driver or if Byron will take one of the other seats. "We are a three-car team, and we want to be three cars," JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. "We've been holding hands with Elliott and looking at sponsorship opportunities for him and keeping that door open. He set the bar for our team this year, so we have a year to work it out and hopefully try to win the championship with him." Earnhardt Miller added that she hoped to have an announcement "toward the end of next week" on the team's full plans for next year. Both Hendrick and Byron will speak in a press conference Saturday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway to address this week's announcement. &amp;amp;amp;amp;lt;/p&amp;amp;amp;amp;gt;
Cain: No need to panic about struggling Hendrick
Who's panicking? Not the Hendrick Motorsports team, as some have suggested. Working overtime, brainstorming, gritting their teeth and rolling up their sleeves? Perhaps. But this organization -- which hasn't celebrated a victory since March -- knows a little something about challenging for NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series championships, and it would be naïve and foolhardy to believe the team's summer doldrums are a definitive sign of playoff potential. At least that's what history has shown us. And what Jimmie Johnson tells us. And what team owner Rick Hendrick has assured. "A lot of hard work went on during the break that we had," Johnson said last weekend at Bristol, Tennessee. "Just judging by the excitement from (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and all the way through to Mr. Hendrick , we're definitely turning over some stones and are hopeful to bring a little better product to the race track week in and week out. "We've been struggling at times, trying to produce speed and lap times of late and making mistakes in the process. We're still rallying with some decent finishes from time to time, but then again, still having some bad luck. I think Watkins Glen kind of speaks to that as well; and also self-inflicted mistakes. "I think come Chase time, in the middle of the Chase, the way things are looking back at the shop, and the excitement I see in all the departments, we're expecting a good late-season surge for Hendrick Motorsports ." Labor Day -- which traditionally marks the end of summer -- can't come soon enough for this team. Johnson is the only member of this Fab Four lineup to hoist a trophy this season, and the six-time champ did it twice right off the bat -- winning the second race of the year at Atlanta, then three weeks later in California. Chase Elliott opened his rookie campaign with 11 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races, including pole positions for the Daytona 500 and at Talladega Superspeedway . And he capped off that season-starting run with a career-best runner-up at Michigan International Speedway -- where the series returns this weekend. Kasey Kahne is also seeking his first trophy of the year, but already has six top 10s -- more than halfway to his entire total (10) from last year. And he has won at both Michigan (2006 from the pole position) and at Richmond, Virginia (2005), where the Chase field will be formally set on Sept. 10. As the Chase Grid stands now, Kahne is tied with Kyle Larson , three positions shy of qualifying. They trail 16th-place Ryan Newman by 39 points. With Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s return still unknown as he recovers from concussion-like symptoms, the feared Hendrick foursome realizes it is a threesome come title time. But it remains a championship threat. "Our guys have been working really hard these past few weeks," said Elliott, who is Chase-eligible by being ranked 12th in the standings. "Everybody is fired up at Hendrick Motorsports . Mr. Hendrick himself is fired up -- he has been around the shop a lot. We are all just trying to give it the best effort we can to try and make the most of these next 14 weeks. "We are all working hard, we are all in. Hopefully, Michigan will be a step in the right direction." In the past -- such as during Johnson's jaw-dropping six title runs in eight years – this team has made it look almost too easy. So Toyota has stepped it up, winning its first Cup championship last year with Kyle Busch and collecting 11 trophies already this year. Ford's been every bit a player, as well, with Team Penske drivers -- Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano -- earning enough trophies (five) between the two of them to keep the others honest this season. And Hendrick's Chevy "alliance" partner, the Stewart-Haas Racing team, has certainly come to the party with at least three Chase entrants including 2014 Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick , who won his second race Sunday at Bristol and leads the championship standings; team owner Tony Stewart , who won at Sonoma , California; and Kurt Busch , who is ranked third in points. And while Johnson's two wins and Elliott's poles seem like it's business as usual, there is a new sense of urgency to right the Hendrick ship heading into the Chase. Johnson has the two wins, but he has only three top 10s in the last 14 races, a stretch that also includes four finishes of 30th or worse. Similarly, Elliott hasn't had a top-10 since his runner-up at Michigan. And Kahne has only one top 10 in that time. "We have been struggling this year, have not been as good as we want or should be," Hendrick said over the weekend while admitting he's even gotten up at 4:30 am to go to the wind tunnel with his team. "We know we have the ingredients and we're not satisfied, and we're going to do whatever it takes. That's been our motto all these years. We're at, what, 242 wins in Cup series? And we're not done. "Nobody's satisfied. We've wrecked more cars. … Haven't led races like we usually do. Not making any excuses, we've got to get to work. That's the deal. We're all committed and we're all excited. Nobody stays on top forever but we're not happy where we are and we want to get back." "I'm accountable," Hendrick continued. "They're accountable. "When you're not doing well, you can walk away and point fingers or you can jump in it and say, 'Let's get with it. We know how to do it. Let's get better working together.' "I'm proud of our company and we're going to be better. I like the challenge."
Hendrick : Move to ink Byron about future, not Dale Jr.
RELATED: Byron checks off boxes one milestone at a time BRISTOL, Tenn. -- NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner Rick Hendrick said this week's signing of Camping World Truck Series phenom William Byron has nothing to do with driver Dale Earnhardt Jr .'s recent battle with concussion-like symptoms, and he expects his driver to return to competition as soon as doctors will allow. "Dale looks great," Hendrick said Saturday night prior to the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway . "I had lunch with him and his road crew Wednesday. … We are taking extra effort with the doctors making sure he's going to be 100 percent. He's got a doctor's appointment next week. He's coming along great and he wants to get back in the car. "William has nothing to do with Dale at all. William has all to do with our future down the road, what's going to happen in 3-5 years from now? Nobody knows." Earnhardt has been sidelined since early July after being diagnosed with concussion like symptoms following the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts at Kentucky Speedway . In his absence, drivers Alex Bowman and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon have piloted the team's No. 88 Chevrolet. RELATED: Bowman to drive at Michigan -- not Gordon -- if Dale Jr. can't go Byron has won five times this season in the Truck Series while driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He will compete full-time for JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by Hendrick , Earnhardt Jr. and Kelley Earnhardt Miller, in the XFINITY Series beginning in 2017. Hendrick fields Sprint Cup entries for Earnhardt, six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Chase Elliott , son of former series champion Bill Elliott . Johnson and primary sponsor Lowe’s signed two-year contract extensions with Hendrick in September of 2015, meaning next season is his last under the current contract. "Jimmie plans to retire there; we plan for him to retire there," Hendrick said of Johnson, who has 77 career victories. "Beyond that, we're excited about (William) just like we were Chase. "If you don't get someone in the pipeline, when it's time for someone to retire then you don't have them. I'd rather bring someone like William along so that we know that we've got someone for the future in our company."
Rick Hendrick wants all four teams to taste success
RELATED: Gordon keeps pedal down on way to Homestead Hendrick Motorsports , winner of six of the last nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, fields four teams but only one will be going for the 2015 championship later this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway . It's a fact that team owner Rick Hendrick doesn't like to be reminded of, given his organization's run of success in the series. Three Hendrick drivers qualified for this year's 16-team Chase for the Sprint Cup field -- Jeff Gordon , a four-time champ; Jimmie Johnson , winner of six titles; and Dale Earnhardt Jr . Earnhardt is still chasing his first Sprint Cup crown. Teammate Kasey Kahne was the only Hendrick driver who failed to earn a berth in the 10-race playoff. Gordon qualified for the Championship Round at Homestead thanks to a win last weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Johnson failed to advance past the first round, while Earnhardt was eliminated after the second three-race segment. With only Gordon still title eligible, how does the organization balance what's best for the No. 24 team while not ignoring the needs of its other teams in the remaining three races? "The cool thing about our deal," Hendrick told NASCAR.com, "is all the stuff is the same. We don't play favorites over any of them. We give them the best stuff we've got -- all four of them. "So it won't be any different the next few races." While Gordon's efforts are top of mind, it's just as valuable for his other teams to continue to succeed as the season winds down, Hendrick said. It's just as important for Jimmie, Kasey and Dale," Hendrick said. "Dale's won twice, Jimmie's won four times this year, so it would be nice if Kasey could get a win. He's been running really well here lately, running up in the top five and top 10. "For all of those teams to end the year on a high is important because that momentum rolls you into next year. You go into the off-season kind of feeling like 'Man, I can't wait to go to Daytona.' "So yeah, it's important for all of them to run good."
William Byron's new reality at Hendrick Motorsports starts sinking in
CONCORD, N.C. -- For William Byron, this trip to Hendrick Motorsports was different. As a fan of the organization with 11 Sprint Cup championships, Byron had visited the Concord, North Carolina, shop before. He peered through the windows at an organization he dreamed of driving for one day. Thursday, his multi-year contract in partnership with JR Motorsports was made official. Friday, he was back at the shop -- only this time wearing a black Hendrick polo shirt and a bright smile. "I've got a bunch of apparel and things I'm trying out, so I'm really excited about that," Byron said. "It's like a kid in a candy store. That's the cool part about it, but I also can't wait to get to know some of the guys and meet the crew chiefs." Team owner Rick Hendrick will give Byron a personal tour of the shop after this weekend's events at Bristol Motor Speedway . Hendrick came calling a few weeks ago, which Byron had no inkling would happen. Not when his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series owner, Kyle Busch Motorsports, also has Sprint Cup Series ties. "For Mr. Hendrick to put the deal together and to have the interest in bringing me along as a driver and not have any strings attached is just a really special opportunity," Byron said. "Not only was it a great fit meeting with them, but then when I heard what he had to say, what he was proposing, it's something that I just couldn't turn down." What was it like for an 18-year-old to meet the legendary car owner? "I was pretty nervous," Byron said with a laugh. "I was probably trembling a little bit. He just has such a good perspective on the sport and such good insight, so every minute that I got to listen and learn was really neat for me." There have been no talks or a timetable put in place for his future beyond 2017, when he will run in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in a JRM entry, Byron said. The immediate focus is the Camping World Truck Series championship. Byron leads the drivers points standings by 37 points after Bristol, on the strength of five wins. He also is locked into the series' inaugural Chase. "It's just one thing at a time," Byron said. "They want me to succeed at JR Motorsports and get to know the guys, get to know the culture, and that's the most important thing. But it's encouraging to know I have a future here, and that's really cool to me." The excitement of what's ahead will be hard for Byron to suppress. Chase Elliott set the bar with JR Motorsports in 2014 with an XFINITY Series championship, and Byron wants to try to match it. Teammates like Dale Earnhardt Jr . and Kasey Kahne are at his disposal. Jeff Gordon is still around, and his was one of the coolest phone calls Byron said he received. And Jimmie Johnson is someone Byron grew up idolizing and at whose house he once trick-or-treated. "Once we got up there, all the dads that were carting around the candy were really amazed," Byron said. "They didn't think he was going to open the door. It was really neat and something I'll always remember." As will this week, which Byron could only describe as a whirlwind. "It's such a surreal feeling," Byron said. "I'm really proud to be a part of it. It's fun to have something to want to race for like that, and it's going to really help the future because I'm so passionate about being here. That's always a good fit for everyone, and that's what I'm looking forward to the most."
Car owners Childress, Hendrick , Parks chosen for Hall of Fame
RELATED: See the induction ceremony in photos CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Three team owners accounting for 18 premier series titles and 349 victories in NASCAR's top series headline the NASCAR Hall of Fame's class of 2017. Raymond Parks, Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick were named, along with drivers Mark Martin and Benny Parsons, Wednesday. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France made the announcement in the Hall of Fame's Great Hall. Parks, Childress, Hendrick and Parsons have been among the nominees on all eight previous Hall of Fame ballots. Martin was nominated for the first time this past year. "That's a load off my mind; I feel relieved, totally," Vi Parks, widow of Raymond Parks, said afterward. "It was a long time coming and I just wish he were here to appreciate it. It's just a great feeling. NASCAR meant so much to Raymond. He loved racing, he loved to be with the people; he always went as long as his health would allow him to go." Parks, who passed away in 2010, became the first championship-winning team owner in 1949 when his driver, Red Byron, won what was then known as the Strictly Stock division. A successful Atlanta businessman who was responsible for helping NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. move forward with the formation of the sanctioning body, Parks and Byron marched to NASCAR's first Modified title as well. Childress won six premier series titles with driver Dale Earnhardt, a member of the inaugural Hall of Fame class inducted in 2010. His Richard Childress Racing organization, located in Welcome, N.C., has earned championships in NASCAR's XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series as well. "I really didn't expect to get in because I was told the only way you're going to get in is to retire or be deceased," Childress said via telephone Wednesday evening. "I sure like the first one better … I haven't gotten plans to retire yet either. "Just to be in there with the class that I'm in, it's unbelievable." Often during speaking engagements, Childress said he would tell the crowd, "Only in America could a kid with a $20 race car and a dream be here speaking to a group like this today," a reference to his humble beginnings as a young racer. "Now I can say only in America could a kid with a dream be in the NACAR Hall of Fame," he said. Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won 11 premier series titles and 242 races. And the team owner said he has no plans for slowing down. "You get tired to the point your body is telling you that you need to slow down," Hendrick said, "but all the people that have worked there that are working there now … you want to keep it going; you want to see it continue. "It's kind of like when you build something and the momentum is there and you want to keep it going. When you sign a young guy like Chase Elliott , you (are) kind of committed to keep it rolling. You want to see Jimmie (Johnson) win his seventh (championship); you want to see Chase win his first, (Dale) Earnhardt (Jr.) win one, Kasey (Kahne) … . "I'd love to see the 250 wins and maybe end up with another Cup championship or two. You know I'm super competitive; I don't want to just go show up, I want to be competitive. "We've accomplished so much. I'm very appreciative of where we are but the competitive side in me and with the team we have we want more. You just have to go dig every day." In addition to the five Hall of Fame inductees, Martinsville (Va.) Speedway track founder H. Clay Earles was selected as the recipient of the 2017 Landmark Award for Outstanding Achievement in NASCAR.
Keselowski and Hendrick : What might have been
On April 18, 2009, Mark Martin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway . It was the 36th NASCAR premier series win for the 50-year-old driver and his first with team owner Rick Hendrick . A week and a day later, Brad Keselowski won the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway . It was the first career win for the 25-year-old, and the first premier series victory for independent car owner James Finch. Two distinctly different races won by two distinctly different drivers. Martin's NASCAR career was beginning to wind down; Keselowski's, on the other hand, appeared to have only just begun. But there was one string that tied the two together -- Hendrick Motorsports . HMS was home to Martin, Jimmie Johnson , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . And it was expected by many to be the future home of the up-and-coming kid from Rochester Hills, Michigan. But a collection of factors that came together throughout the course of that season altered the racing landscape as well as the career path of Keselowski. It would be nearly three years before the next driver change at HMS. By then Keselowski had not only found a new home, but he was also on his way to winning the Sprint Cup championship. 'I WAS NOT GOING TO LOSE' The sun was out and the grandstands were packed when the 2009 Aaron's 499, the season's ninth Sprint Cup race, went green for the final time. As race leader Ryan Newman tried to keep Earnhardt Jr., the crowd favorite, in check, Keselowski darted to the inside behind Carl Edwards on the track's massive backstretch. It was a move that didn’t seem to mean much at the time. But at the start-finish line with two laps remaining, Edwards and Keselowski shot to the outside entering Turn 1. "Here they come; look at the 99 and ..." NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip began. " Brad Keselowski ," lead announcer Mike Joy and co-analyst Larry McReynolds chimed in. When the white flag appeared, Edwards and Keselowski had caught and were beginning to pull away from Newman and Earnhardt Jr. Racing back through the tri-oval, Keselowski turned his No. 09 Chevrolet to the outside, and then quickly dropped to the bottom as Edwards moved up to block. Realizing the bottom lane was now open, Edwards reacted quickly -- but not quickly enough. Contact sent the No. 99 Ford spinning. Edwards' car came off the track briefly and was beginning to settle back onto the track it was struck by Newman's Chevrolet. The impact sent Edwards roof-first into the frontstretch catch fence. Meanwhile, Keselowski kept his foot in the gas, racing across the finish line for the win just ahead of Earnhardt Jr. "I was not going to lose," Keselowski said in his post-race winner's interview. "I was not going to lift and (I was going to) hold my ground and consequences be damned." A full-time competitor at the time for JR Motorsports (which, coincidentally, counts Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick among its ownership group) in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Keselowski said he didn't know what the future held after his first premier series win. "I know I don't have anything locked in," he said. "That's really all I can say ... I don't have a job secured for next year, and everything to this point has been wait-and-see. I know this certainly can't hurt." But behind the scenes, moves were already underway. Finch's Phoenix Racing, which purchased it engines from HMS, had put Keselowski in the car at the suggestion of Hendrick . And the JRM/ Hendrick pipeline, which grooms talent in the lower series to help restock the Sprint Cup program, was taking root. Keselowski had made two starts for Hendrick the previous year, and would make seven all together in '09, in addition to five races with Finch. Perhaps his future wasn't as cloudy as it appeared. " Rick had come out and told me, actually had made it a point to say to the media that he thought I was a future driver at Hendrick ," Keselowski told NASCAR.com recently. There was only one problem. SWAN SONG? On July 4, 2008, HMS officials announced that Martin had signed a two-year agreement to drive the organization's No. 5 Chevrolet. According to the news release, Martin, who would run a full schedule in 2009, would "run a partial Sprint Cup schedule ... in 2010, sharing the No. 5 Chevy with a to-be-determined second driver.” By most accounts, that driver was expected to be Keselowski. But in May of '09, less than three weeks after Martin's Phoenix victory, HMS officials announced a revision to the '08 agreement. The veteran driver would return in 2010 to once again run the entire season. With Keselowski waiting in the wings and Martin winning and agreeing to return the following year, " Rick was kind of half pregnant," Keselowski said. "He (was) stuck. "My feeling was, after I had won Talladega, I'm going to get this 5 car ride partially next year, pair it with something else, let's go. I didn't know what it was going to be. We'll figure it out; let's go." A phone call and subsequent meeting with Hendrick , however, changed all that. "I was kind of expecting more of a 'Hey, we're going to expedite the process of clearing out the rest of this,' " Keselowski said of the meeting, "And instead I got a 'Hey, I don't have a ride for you. You need to figure something else out. I'll try to help.' "That was late April, early May of that year. My intent ... was to give him that time to kind of make right on it somehow, find a ride because he had made me the promise that I would have that car. It didn't sit all that well, but I understood the circumstances and so forth." Months passed and Keselowski busied himself with his full-time XFINITY Series effort at JRM while making a handful of Sprint Cup starts for Hendrick and Finch. Hendrick , in the meantime, was exploring the various avenues that might keep Keselowski in the HMS camp. Possible scenarios included Stewart-Haas Racing , at the time a two-team effort, and Red Bull Racing. Consideration was even given to fielding a Sprint Cup entry out of the JR Motorsports shop, according to the owner. But the pieces didn't fit and as the summer wore on, Keselowski's future remained uncertain. "I wanted him to wait a year," Hendrick told NASCAR.com. "... I don't remember all the details, but I do remember that Mark had done so well, and I had tried to talk (Mark) into staying. "I've told all our guys, the first time I sat down with Brad he impressed me because he was so intense about the whole car and wanted to be involved in everything. He was just so committed. I told our guys he's got the right attitude about racing and driving. I just needed him to wait." Waiting, though, wasn't part of Keselowski's plan. "My perception is a driver is a lot like a perishable fruit," Keselowski said. "You've got so much time, then he spoils and goes bad. There are a lot of variables, much like anything." PENSKE COMES CALLING The Keselowski family has always been involved in racing. Brad's father Bob was an ARCA Series standout and a former winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Ron Keselowski, an uncle, scored two top-five finishes in 68 premier series starts while older brother Brian Keselowski has one or more starts in all three of NASCAR's national series. "We knew the Keselowski name from being here in Detroit," Walt Czarnecki, an executive vice president at Penske Corp., said. "His dad, his uncle, all that. They would run out at MIS ( Michigan International Speedway ) when (Penske) owned the track." But it was a business associate, lawyer/agent John Caponigro, who brought up the young driver's name during a conversation in 2009. "We thought he was committed to Hendrick ," Czarnecki said. "He'd been on loan to James Finch to run several races. But some things were changing." Conversations with Keselowski ensued, in Michigan as well as Mooresville, North Carolina, where Team Penske is headquartered. "All this time," Czarnecki said, "Still having this somewhat uncertain situation with Mr. Hendrick ." Team Penske had grown from a two-team to a three-team organization in '08, fielding cars for drivers Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr . In '09 Newman departed to join owner/driver Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing and 32-year-old David Stremme was brought on board to fill the open seat. But the Keselowski opportunity was intriguing, according to Czarnecki. "We've tried to sign on what we consider to be the best available young drivers with a great deal of potential that we could mold and have them grow in our organization," he said. "And I think that Brad certainly fit that description. "But above and beyond that, he had a bigger vision as to what role he wanted to play in terms of the development of the team. ... Just how he saw different things coming together ... "Some of it may have been a little unrealistic; some of it was certainly the enthusiasm of a young man who had a goal in mind. ... But he had this great enthusiasm and he had this great desire and this great commitment. And that appealed to us." With the Hendrick effort seemingly stalled, Keselowski went back to Penske with a request -- to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series. In addition to its Sprint Cup effort, Team Penske was fielding one full-time XFINITY Series team with driver Justin Allgaier . Expanding that program to two teams running all the races was problematic, given the economy at the time. Told such a scenario was unlikely, Keselowski was left to consider his few available options. But Penske officials continued to work until enough of the appropriate pieces were in place. "Sure enough, Roger called me one night and said 'Alright, I've got it put together,' " Keselowski said. "It kind of caught me off guard. I was sold. That's it; he made it happen." "I couldn't sit around and wait. ... Roger had gone above and beyond to put something together that I felt like was the opportunity I needed. ... The economy was on its way down fast; Roger (through his various businesses) had a lot of immunities to the economy. Rick made it very clear to me that he was not going to invest himself without having a sponsor, and the economy was not in a spot where he could facilitate that." Hendrick had been aware of the Penske interest from the beginning, having had conversations with his fellow team owner about Keselowski's status. "Roger called me and asked me could he talk to him," Hendrick said. "I didn't want to stand in his way. Brad's a hell of a talent. It was a timing issue. "It's worked out for him. At his age it would have been nice if we could have kept him. ... If I got a call from Roger and I was in his spot I would have done exactly what he did." POSTSCRIPT On Sept. 1, 2009, Team Penske officials announced that the organization had signed Keselowski to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series beginning the following season. Since then, Keselowski has won 17 Sprint Cup races, 28 XFINITY Series races and championships in both series. "I don't want to sound mercenary but he brought us our first Sprint Cup championship (in 2012)," Czarnecki said. "Because that vision that he outlined, we tried to work with him and bring people along, bring people into the organization, have him work with people like (crew chief) Paul Wolfe, it was really the realization of that vision. That's what it (has) meant. "And his intensity hasn't changed." Former teammates Busch and Hornish have departed, and fellow driver AJ Allmendinger has come and gone. Keselowski, now 32, is the veteran of a Penske group that now includes 25-year-old teammate Joey Logano . "I wasn’t looking to switch," Keselowski said. "If things would have gone the way they were supposed to go before Mark won that race at Phoenix, I would still be there."