Hendrick doing well to prepare for possibility of National Guard leaving the 88

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Rick Hendrick didn’t get to be one of NASCAR’s most successful owners by not seeing the trends and directions the business is going.

Hendrick, and his entire Hendrick Motorsports organization, have done an excellent job of putting together partnerships to keep his empire at the top of the NASCAR heap.

He’s done it for more than 25 years, despite partners that have come and gone.

He’s doing it again, now, in preparing for the possible departure of the National Guard from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car.

The increase in sponsor announcements with new partners Nationwide Insurance and DC Entertainment being announced within the last few weeks, and also with Mtn Dew stepping up its activation with a series of videos, are clear signs that Hendrick’s team is working ‘round the clock to get more companies on board the 88 in case the Guard departs.

It’s not inconceivable that they will – witness two reports of note from the past couple weeks.

A USA Today report indicated that despite the more than $26+ million spent on activation and sponsorships in 2012, there was not a single recruit signup at a NASCAR event.

While that doesn’t factor into account local branches where the Guard could attract –and sign – new recruits, it’s still a worrying report.

Then there’s this from Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass, veteran NASCAR reporter who is among the best at deciphering the business side of the sport:

The Army National Guard has a new leader in Judd Lyons, who took over in January. At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing last week, Lyons vowed to re-examine the effectiveness of the National Guard sponsorship. He said the Guard is conducting more in-depth surveys of those enlisting to determine what led them to enlist, which in turn should help them understand the value.

Political pressure of military sponsorships in NASCAR is nothing new. It’s been going on for several years. And that’s the way it should be — those in charge of spending taxpayer dollars have an interest in how those dollars are spent.

When a change at the top happens to any company – especially one whose motorsports’ spending have been as closely scrutinized as the Guard’s has been – you have to begin preparing for the eventuality that the deal is closer to the end of its life span than the beginning.

The Guard has backed Dale Jr. and the 88 since his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.

If you’re the Guard, you’ve supported NASCAR’s most popular driver through thick-and-thin, and through what have been more trying years than actual delivery on track.

Junior’s made the Chase each of the last three years, but prior to his much appreciated Daytona 500 victory this year, he’s won only two other races in his stint at Hendrick. He’s still never won a championship, even though he has a good shot to this year in his last season with crew chief Steve Letarte (another area Hendrick will need to address for 2015).

Sponsors demand ROI, even if they happen to have one of the sport’s most marketable drivers, and even if they have the most popular driver.

But they don’t stay on forever. And at only seven years together, the Guard-Dale Jr. relationship isn’t at the length of a Jeff Gordon-DuPont or John Force-Castrol type relationship of 20 or more years.

Hendrick prepared for the eventuality of DuPont’s departure as Gordon’s primary backer by having other associates ready to step up, and ultimately putting together a deal with the AARP’s Drive to End Hunger that has now been the primary backer on the 24 car for several seasons.

You can tell he’s doing the same now on the 88 to keep Dale Jr., in the face of what appears to be a slowly phased down withdrawal by the Guard.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.