Ge­orge Diaz: Chase Elliott, Jim­mie John­son in des­per­a­tion drive in Phoenix


(TNS) — A trip to NASCAR’s final race near Mi­ami of­ten has in­volved a corona­tion and a sip of cham­pagne for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports.

Rid­ing on the dom­i­nance of the No .48 team and the dy­namic chem­istry be­tween Jim­mie John­son and crew chief Chad Knaus, John­son has won seven Cup ti­tles un­der the Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports ban­ner since 2006.

The dy­nam­ics in play as the team rides into Phoenix for the penul­ti­mate race be­fore the Cham­pi­onship 4 run Nov. 19 at Homestead­Mi­ami Speed­way are very dif­fer­ent. John­son and team­mate Chase Elliott are still in the play­off mix, but only as long-shot out­siders. With Elliott ranked sev­enth and John­son eighth in the play­off stand­ings _ and only one play­off berth still un­set­tled _ the math is very clear:

Win at Phoenix to avoid elim­i­na­tion.

“We both know what our chal­lenges are, and hope­fully one of us can do it,” Elliott said via phone on Tues­day af­ter­noon. “We have to win. We know that plain as day.”

What­ever hap­pens, con­sider this a year of tran­si­tion and a great deal of frus­tra­tion for a group that was once con­sid­ered the most dom­i­nant of all the su­perteams in the garage.

Dale Earn­hardt Jr. is win­less in his final sea­son, grind­ing out laps with­out much suc­cess. Maybe it’s some­thing tech­ni­cal, but most likely a com­bi­na­tion of a man who wants to start a fam­ily in good health and isn’t go­ing to take any crazy risks for some short-term sat­is­fac­tion on the track.

Kasey Kahne was bounced in the first round of the play­offs. He was also bounced from the Hen­drick team ear­lier in the sea­son when it an­nounced that Elliott would take over the No. 5 team and bring his fa­ther’s iconic No. 9 to the Hen­drick garage in 2018. Kahne has since signed a deal with Levine Fam­ily Rac­ing.

Earn­hardt will be re­placed by Alex Bow­man in the No. 88 Chevro­let in 2018. And Wil­liam By­ron will re­place Elliott in the No. 24 Chevro­let in 2018, leav­ing John­son as the one veteran among a group of three ris­ing young drivers. Ch-ch-chi-changes in­deed. “Alex and Wil­liam have been rac­ing long enough that there’s noth­ing I can tell them,” Elliott said. “They know how to do their job. They’re in the sit­u­a­tion they’re go­ing to be in next year for a rea­son. They’ve had suc­cess along the way. There’s noth­ing that I know driv­ing that they don’t al­ready know. They’ll be just fine.”

The hope re­mains for a walk-off home run in Phoenix.

“It’s been a good track for us,” John­son said af­ter fin­ish­ing 27th in Texas this past week­end. “But this last half of the year has been re­ally weird. In places where we ex­pect to run well and tra­di­tion­ally do, we haven’t. But I know we’re build­ing a bet­ter race car and tak­ing a few new ideas to Phoenix and we’ll go there and fight as hard as we can. And that’s one thing this team will never do is give up.”

In what con­tin­ues to be a year of un­prece­dented change in the sport in­volv­ing a pa­rade of vet­er­ans leav­ing, Matt Kenseth an­nounced last week in Texas that he has no plans to drive in 2018.

“I’m not com­mit­ting to any­thing for 2018,” Kenseth said. “I’m just go­ing to take some time off, what­ever that means. I don’t know if that’s a year, two years, three months, four months. You never know what hap­pens.

“Maybe some­thing comes along that re­ally makes me ex­cited and feels like it’s go­ing to be a fit and you might go do. I’m cer­tainly not go­ing to rule that out. For now, I’m not mak­ing plans for 2018. I plan on tak­ing some time off.”

Joe Gibbs Rac­ing bumped Kenseth from his 2018 ride in July, re­plac­ing him with Erik Jones. With a high salary and spon­sor­ships dry­ing up, Kenseth has not been able to se­cure a ride.

Aric Almirola’s move to Ste­wart-Haas Rac­ing will be­come of­fi­cial Wed­nes­day. The race team has called a press con­fer­ence to con­firm what in­sid­ers al­ready know: Almirola will re­place Dan­ica Patrick in the No. 10 car next sea­son.

Almirola will bring along his spon­sor Smith­field, which has helped fi­nance his ride at Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports for the last six sea­sons. Smith­field will also con­tinue to work with Richard Petty Mo­tor­sports in an un­de­ter­mined ca­pac­ity.

Petty and Smith­field reached an am­i­ca­ble truce af­ter a terse back-and-forth when news broke of Almirola’s jump to SHR.

“We’re pleased that there has been a res­o­lu­tion to this mis­un­der­stand­ing. Smith­field has en­joyed its six-year re­la­tion­ship with RPM and like any NASCAR sup­porter, we want to con­tinue to see the No. 43 car on the track for years to come,” Smith­field said in a state­ment. “Richard is truly a leg­end in NASCAR _ a sport and com­mu­nity of fans that we love and are proud to con­tinue to sup­port in 2018.”

Bubba Wal­lace will drive the No. 43 for Petty Mo­tor­sports next sea­son.

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