NASCAR: Jeff Gordon excited for new opportunity as Vice-Chairman of Hendrick Motorsports

After spending six years as an analyst in FOX Sports’ NASCAR Cup Series booth, Jeff Gordon recently announced that he’s putting down the microphone and headed back to Hendrick Motorsports on a full-time basis. Gordon certainly isn’t getting back in the car, however, he’ll enter a new management role in 2022. Beginning January 1, Gordon will become the new Vice-Chairman of the historic racing organization, a massive promotion from his previous role as a team equity owner.

“I’m excited,” Gordon said at Pocono Raceway in June. “It’s been in discussion for a long time between Rick [Hendrick] and myself, and my presence has been there. It wasn’t a choice about leaving FOX, it was really about the opportunity and timing of moving into this role full-time”.

Gordon will become the No. 2 man in charge at Hendrick Motorsports, only behind team owner Rick Hendrick.

“I’ve been behind the scenes, understanding and learning the business side gradually over time,” Gordon said. “As I started getting closer to stepping away in 2015 from a driving role, my interest level in the business side of the picture that Rick’s created [increased]”.

One of the goals Gordon has in his new role is to continue to build relationships with drivers and staff members at HMS. An example he gave was his relationship with Alex Bowman, a five-time Cup Series winner and driver of the No. 48 machine.

Bowman first signed with Hendrick Motorsports in 2016 on a part-time basis to drive Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car while Earnhardt Jr. was recovering from injuries. Bowman split time with Gordon in the seat over the final 18 races of the season with Bowman getting starts in 10 of those races.

“I can spend all my time nurturing relationships,” Gordon said. “Alex [Bowman] would be one of those guys. He and I did double-duty when Jr. was out, so that was a fun way to know Alex…..It took us a little while to where we can bond, and now that we’ve got him signed up, I look forward to getting even closer to him”.

“There were some really impactful conversations with me last year [with Jeff],” Bowman said following his win in the Pocono Organics CBD 325. “Jeff is super helpful, and he gets it from the organizational side, [and] from a racecar driver side, so that’s been super cool….When I started driving the No. 88 and sharing it with him, I didn’t really know Jeff. Of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports, with him having to wear so many hats and having so much going on, that relationship probably took the longest to build”.

Much like the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Bowman’s Crew Chief Greg Ives and other HMS employees are excited to have Gordon back in a full-time role.

“Jeff gave me time to talk [after Nashville],” Ives said. “He was able to give me 20 minutes of his time and give me advice and how to look at some different situations in the future because he’s experienced it. I think it’s a huge impact for Hendrick Motorsports to have that guy who has accomplished so much but also has had a long career”.

Although Gordon said rejoining Hendrick Motorsports in a full-time role was an easy decision, it was tough for him to leave the FOX booth. He mentioned how much he enjoyed working with Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, and Larry McReynolds over his six seasons on TV, and how he really enjoyed his time working with Clint Bowyer in 2021.

“The skit that Clint and I did at Daytona was the hardest I’ve laughed in a long time,” Gordon said about his favorite FOX memories. “That all came together in about a week. There was the whole buildup of if we could pull it off, what’s HR going to think, where are we going to get these cars, and what are we going to do with them once we get on track. To see that play off the way that it did was definately one of my favorite moments”.

Gordon’s departure from FOX leaves speculation as to what FOX will do with their on-air talent in 2022. Will the network revert back to a two-man booth like they did in 2020, or will a new driver join Joy and Bowyer come springtime?

Although fans will miss Gordon on TV, his ever-growing presence at Hendrick Motorsports will continue to take the team to growing heights. With four young drivers each in the prime of their careers, HMS will be a force for years to come under the leadership of Jeff Gordon.

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR watch has ended at HMS. Are Chase Elliott and his teammates ready to follow in the steps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

2021 Hendrick Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kyle Larson 5 Cliff Daniels NationsGuard/HendrickCars.com
Chase Elliott 9 Alan Gustafson NAPA Auto Parts/Hooters/Llumar
William Byron 24 Rudy Fugle Axalta/Liberty University
Alex Bowman 48 Greg Ives Ally

History

In metropolitan terms, Hendrick Motorsports could well be the New York Yankees. Since North Carolina auto dealer Rick Hendrick entered the sport in 1984, some of the finest names in the sport have driven his Chevrolets…including fictional ones, as Hendrick provided the cars used in the NASCAR blockbuster Days of Thunder.

The early days at HMS were dominated by strong runs with names like Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, and Ken Schrader, but championships proved elusive. That all changed in 1995, when wunderkind Jeff Gordon, in just his third season on the Cup Series circuit, held off Dale Earnhardt to earn the 1995 championship with the No. 24 team. Hendrick vehicles took each of the next four championships, with Terry Labonte triumphing in the ensuring 1996 season before Gordon captured two more. The fourth and final championship for Gordon came in 2001. Each of his 93 Cup Series victories, third-best all-time, came in Hendrick’s No. 24.

Just when the circuit had enough of Hendrick dominance…Joe Gibbs Racing was rising to power through championships for Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart…Hendrick and Gordon unleashed the monster known as Jimmie Johnson unto the racing world in 2002, driving the newly formed No. 48 Chevrolet. It took a little more patience for Johnson to earn his first championship, but once he did so in 2006, his fifth full year in the Series, there was no stopping him. Johnson would go on to win five consecutive championships (2006-10) before adding two more (2013, 2016) to solidify himself as the driver with the most titles alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Like Gordon, Johnson won each and every one of his Cup Series races under a Hendrick banner, tallying 83 when all was said and done.

So, suffice to say…there’s a lot to live up to for Hendrick’s current crop.

2020 in Review

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as Semisonic routinely sang during Jeff Gordon’s heyday. That perfectly defined the Hendrick Motorsports mindset in 2020. As Jimmie Johnson struggled in a swan song, failing to earn one last win or a playoff berth in a tough season, Chase Elliott followed in his father Bill’s footsteps behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott had been consistent all season…his three-win tally entering the penultimate race at Martinsville could’ve been more than doubled if not for some bad luck along the way…but many were expecting him to perform to a higher standard with strong equipment and a legendary NASCAR pedigree.

But Elliott proved his mettle in historic ways during the final segments of the season. An advancement to the championship round thanks to a win at Martinsville was seemingly for naught when he was forced to start the title-clincher at Phoenix at the back of the field due to failed inspection. But Elliott looked at the best possible way a racer could: more cars for him to pass.

“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick told the media this week. “That’s something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me one time. He said you have to know when to race. He said you have to know how to race, but you have to know when to race. And Chase does that.”

Elliott not only worked his way up to the front at Phoenix, but he wound up leading a race-best 153 of 312 laps to clinch the title, the 13th in HMS’ treasured history. He and Bill also became the third father-son duo to take home matching Cup Series championships, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and Pettys (Lee and Richard).

Other drivers had their chance to shine for Hendrick as well. Alex Bowman, the internal successor to Johnson in the No. 48 Chevorlet, finished out his career under No. 88 branding with an appearance in the semifinal round of eight drivers, ironically dominating the California native Johnson’s final visit to Fontana early in the year. William Byron, bearing Gordon’s iconic numerals, earned his first victory at the regular season finale at Daytona.

Meet the Drivers

Kyle Larson

Experience: 7th full season
Career Cup Victories: 6 (last: Dover fall, 2019)
2020 finish: 34th
Best standings finish: 6th (2019)

By now, both the casual observer and the die-hard fan alike knows about Larson’s transgression that led to his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing, uttering a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Larson’s return was earned through not only undergoing mandated sensitivity training from NASCAR but lending his time and resources to several charitable causes to educate himself on modern affairs and to be a better person. It was enough to convince Hendrick that Larson had earned a new opportunity, one to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet that Labonte drove to a championship a quarter-century prior.

“When you look at the character of what he is; a lot of people do things and they say I’m sorry, right?” Hendrick asked rhetorically. “They just say I’m sorry and go right on running their life. And that’s all they have to do. And people say okay, we’ll give you another shot. This guy did ten times that. And he’s created an image and things in that community that people really respect him. So, I guess the answer to the riddle is that I’m a part of it, but it was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.”

There’s no denying that Larson has the talent to succeed in racing. He won six races driving CGR’s No. 42 (four during the 2017 campaign) and earned countless victories driving dirt cars during his suspension.

Chase Elliott

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 11 (last: Phoenix fall, 2020)
2020 finish: 2020 Champion
Best standings finish: 2020 Champion

It truly is a bit of a shame that Elliott’s career is connected to so many of the sport’s most memorable names. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, originally took over for Jeff Gordon after racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in the Xfinity Series. Such connections have helped Elliott reach this point, but may be used by detractors to discount his incredible success. With his first championship under his belt, Elliott is now ready to truly leave a mark on the sport; he knows that NASCAR is a world of “what have you done for me lately”, a feeling he feels has permeated every professional sport. He compared it to those who asked Jimmie Johnson the same questions toward the end of his career.

“In any sport, it’s what have you done lately,” Elliott remarked. “I think about all the disrespect that Jimmie Johnson got toward the end of this career. It’s like everyone forgot about how great he is just because he had a bad race or a bad stretch of races. The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently.”

“On the flip side of that, if you have a good run after being trashed for a year or something, everyone is going to be hyping you up, be excited for you and jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all about performance and all about what you’ve done lately. We want to push; we want to continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s all that matters to our entire group.”

Only making Elliott ever more dangerous this season? As the winner of the last four visits to road course events, perhaps no one is more excited to see a record seven on the 2021 slate than Elliott.

William Byron

Experience: 4th season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Daytona summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 14th
Best standings finish: 11th (2019)

Byron has had a little trouble racing up to the reputation that his numerals mandate, failing to finish in the top ten in any of his first four seasons. He did get one monkey off his back by earning his first career victory at the regular season finale at Daytona that punched his playoff ticket. Byron mentioned that going into the new year liberated from the burden of missing out on his first Cup win will work in the team’s favor.

“It’s great that there is not as much attention on that headline and not as much outside noise. For us, the goal is still the same – to win. Our goal has always been to win and now we can do it with some confidence. We can just focus on just doing our jobs.”

Alex Bowman

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Fontana 2020)
2020 finish: 6th
Best standings finish: 6th (2020)

To put things in metropolitan terms, Bowman replacing Johnson in the No. 48 is the equivalent of what Didi Gregorious went through when he took over the mantle of New York Yankees shortstop from Derek Jeter. It’s a spot that will feature increased eyes and heightened scrutiny, a challenge Bowman believes he’s handling well going into this fateful season.

Bowman is eager to fulfill those sky-high expectations but stays grounded by reminding himself that he’s working his way through NASCAR for himself.

“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish,” he said. “I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible.

“But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”

Outlook

Elliott is obviously going to be someone to keep an eye on in the grand scheme of things, while it’ll be interesting to see how Bowman handles the newfound responsibilities that are attached to the No. 48. Both Byron and Larson will each face heightened expectations as well, as Hendrick Motorsports undergoes a youthful revolt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

What you need to know about NASCAR’s Confederate flag ban

NASCAR has banned the display of the Confederate flag at its events. Here’s what you need to know about the developments.

NASCAR announced on Wednesday that they will ban display of the Confederate flag at its sanctioned events. The ban comes hours before the premier Cup Series drops the green flag at Martinsville Speedway for the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 (7 p.m. ET, FS1).

“The presence of the confederate flag at NASCAR events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry,” a statement from NASCAR reads. “Bringing people together around a love for racing and the community that it creates is what makes our fans and sport special. The display of the confederate flag will be prohibited from all NASCAR events and properties.”

Terms of how such a ban will be enforced have yet to be disclosed.

The Flag

Different versions of the flag of the Confederate States of America have been displayed by fans at NASCAR events, which primarily take place in the southeast United States. The CSA seceded from the United States of America in 1861 to protest of President Abraham Lincoln’s election, one that threatened to end the institution of slavery. Their secession led to the American Civil War, which ran from 1861 through 1865. CSA General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General and future American President Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, leading to the abolition of slavery and freeing scores of black slaves imprisoned on southern plantations.

The most renowned variant of the flag is likely most similar to the Confederate’s naval jack flowing in the latter stages of the war. Another extremely similar, rectangular variant was used as the battle flag for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Despite the loss, attempts have been made to readapt the flag as a symbol of Southern pride and states’ rights. Critics have countered that the flag has been used as a glorification of racism and white supremacy, as well as a sign of intimidation toward African-Americans.

NASCAR and the Flag

In 2015, NASCAR began to discourage display of the flag after a white supremacist-inspired shooting left killed nine African-Americans at a Charleston, SC church. The perpetrator had previously posed with Confederate paraphernalia and engaged in white supremacist rhetoric. NASCAR publicly supported the decision of then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to remove the Confederate flag from the State House. South Carolina is home to Darlington Raceway near Myrtle Beach, one of NASCAR’s original and most renowned tracks.

Then-Chairman and CEO Brian France later expressed a desire to ban the flag outright. At the time, NASCAR asked fans not to display the flag at events and offered an exchange program to trade in Confederate flags for American flags at the July 2015 race at Daytona International Speedway.

NASCAR has been a predominantly-white league since its inception in 1949. Only seven black drivers have partaken in events at the Cup Series level, including current full-time driver Bubba Wallace, who drives the No. 43 Chevrolet for Richard Petty Motorsports. It has unfortunately not been a stranger to racial controversy. During a virtual race on the iRacing platform, Cup Series star Kyle Larson casually used a racial slur in an event live-streamed on Twitch. Larson was suspended indefinitely by NASCAR and fired from his ride in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

In 2004, NASCAR began the Drive for Diversity program, which set up a platform to attract minority individuals to the sport, in a variety of roles, including those as drivers, crew chiefs, sponsors, and more. Former NBA All-Star and top overall pick Brad Daugherty played a role in the program’s development. The former University of North Carolina and Cleveland Cavaliers star is currently a co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, which fields the respective No. 37 and No. 47 Chevrolets of Ryan Preece and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – MAY 31: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Discount Tire Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Food City presents the Supermarket Heroes 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on May 31, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Driver Response

The debate regarding Confederate symbols has reopened in the wake of nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality against African-Americans. Removal of statues bearing the likeness of Confederate representatives has become more prevalent and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has also called for such statues to be removed from the U.S. Capitol Building.

During the initial tone down in 2015, NASCAR’s most prominent faces supported NASCAR’s decision. Four-time Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon told CBS This Morning that “there’s no place for it” and Dale Earnhardt Jr. agreed.

“It really does nothing for anybody to be there flying,” Earnhardt Jr. said to Dustin Long of NBC Sports. “It belongs in the history books, that’s about it.’’

Yahoo!’s Jay Busbee recalled a story from his 2016 book Earnhardt Nation: The Full-Throttle Saga of NASCAR’s First Family in which seven-time Cup champion and NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr. removed a Confederate flag bumper sticker from his truck after his housekeeper, an African-American woman, told him of the flag’s connotations.

Prior to last Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, NASCAR President Steve Phelps called for a change in a radio message to drivers. “Our country is in pain and people are justifiably angry, demanding to be heard,” Phelps said. “The black community and all people of color have suffered in our country and it has taken far too long for us to hear their demands for change. Our sport must do better. Our country must do better.”

Since then, more drivers have been proactive in the fight against systemic racism and injustice. Wallace appeared on CNN earlier this week calling for an end to the Confederate flag’s display. Prior to the Atlanta event, Wallace was seen wearing an American flag facemask and a shirt bearing the words “I can’t breathe”, referencing the words spoken by Eric Garner and George Floyd, who died at the hands of officers in New York City and Minneapolis. On Wednesday night, Wallace’s No. 43 Chevrolet will bear the “#BlackLivesMatter” insignia. The image of a black and white hand together will be displayed on the hood.

Brad Keselowski stopped short of calling for an outright ban (telling USA Today’s Michelle R. Martinelli “it wasn’t (his) right”), but united with Penske Racing teammate Ryan Blaney to call for respect to another flag: the stars and stripes of America.

“I only salute one flag and that’s America’s,” said Keselowski, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion and driver of the No. 2 Ford. “I recognize that (the Confederate) flag might mean something different to different people, but it doesn’t mean United States of America to me.”

“It’s tough, but I don’t really enjoy it because sometimes I feel like the people that wave them mean the negative when they wave them, and that’s not cool,” Wednesday’s polesitter Blaney added to Martinelli. ” I’d love to not see them at the race track, honestly, because it doesn’t make everyone comfortable, so that’s kind of where I stand on that. Bring your 50 stars flag; I think that would be way better.”

In an exclusive interview with ESM, Corey LaJoie, driver of the No. 32 Ford for Go Fas Racing, put in the simplest, most relatable terms possible hours before the ban.

“We need to now allow that banner to be at the racetrack,” LaJoie told ESM. “I don’t really care what it means, how you can justify what it means. I think, if anything, you can justify it being sensitive to the people it offends.”

“If my brother is definitely allergic to peanuts, but I love peanuts, I’m not going to eat peanuts in front of him, just because it has the possibility to hurt him physically. If there’s something that I consciously do that would offend somebody emotionally, I wouldn’t choose to do that, even if I enjoyed eating peanuts.”

“We are one community trying to entertain people. That’s what we show up 36 weekends out of the year to do, to entertain. We don’t want to exclude anybody. We want to have everybody feel welcome coming to a NASCAR race.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Two Young Guns Flying Under The Radar to Become New Stars

NASCAR, Tyler Reddick

As Jimmie Johnson prepares to join former Hendrick teammates, Dale Jr., and Jeff Gordon, in retirement, another star leaves the sport. NASCAR built its fan base around those 3 among other stars.

As every sport does, NASCAR is seeing new stars emerge as faces of the sport. Veterans like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, and other stars continue to lead the way. Along with younger guys like Chase Elliot, Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano, among others, taking over the limelight, more stars continue to emerge. As NASCAR undergoes a landscape shift in terms of star power, two young drivers have had a strong start to their careers.

Tyler Reddick

Tyler Reddick was an up and coming driver when JR Motorsports tapped him to take over for William Byron. Reddick won the season opener at Daytona in the closest finish in the history of NASCAR.

Although he didn’t win again until the final race of the season, his consistency allowed him to remain in contention. He then pulled off an upset and won his 1st Xfinity title in his rookie season.  Reddick then made the surprising move to jump ship to Richard Childress Racing. The move was made to speed up the process to the Cup Series in Reddick’s eyes. In 2019, Reddick dominated the series. With six wins, he, Christopher Bell, and Cole Custer shined above the rest.

When Homestead came, Reddick shined again. He won his 2nd title in 2 years in the series. This was the end of his Xfinity career. He took over Daniel Hemric’s ride in the 8 machine. He’s already flashed his skill with solid performances, including a 7th place finish in Darlington and an 8th place finish in the Coke 600. Reddick is a guy who has been labeled by some as a future star, and he could jump from RCR if Hendrick or Stewart-Haas targets him. Reddick has a bright future and is one to watch.

John Hunter Nemechek

The Front Row Motorsports machines tend to struggle to maintain a competitive machine. More often than not, a top 15 finish for them is a good day. Their newest addition, 22-year-old John Hunter Nemechek, has the potential to change that.

In his Truck Series career, in 101 races, Nemechek had 6 wins and 50 Top Tens. Nearly half of the races Nemechek ran, he was in the top 10. In the Xfinity Series, Nemechek raced in 51 races with 1 win and 30 Top Tens. Nemechek has been the picture of consistency in his career to this point. Now at 22, he has been impressive in the 38 machine.

He’s brought the machine towards the front with good runs. He’s had 1 Top Ten in 9 races and an average finish of 19th. That may seem low, but prior to this season, David Ragan never drove the 38 machine to a higher average finish than 22.9. Nemechek has the potential to vault himself into a premier car at some point if he can continue to be consistent.