Bob Pockrass, NASCAR 353d

A sneak peek at 2018 from Hendrick doesn't mean 2017 is lost


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Hendrick Motorsports enjoyed a laser-frenzied, glow-stick-filled evening Thursday night as it unveiled its 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series paint schemes in the ballroom adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The 2018 drivers were all there. As were the inspirations -- Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- for the paint schemes. The sponsor executives were there after a series of meetings earlier in the day, getting pumped for 2018.

And, of course, the merch went on sale online afterward.


But wait a second, don't we still have seven races left in 2017?

"It's far from over -- especially where I'm sitting," seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said about the 2017 season. "We've got a lot of work to do."

The Hendrick drivers could be forgiven if they've already started thinking about 2018 as the organization has managed just four victories this season thus far. But the two returning drivers, Chase Elliott and Johnson, still are among the 12 finalists for the 2017 Cup title.

Granted, they have led a combined 557 of the 8,371 laps this year with a combined 12 top-5s in the 29 races. Those numbers don't exactly scream championship.

While Elliott and Johnson finished 2-3 Sunday at Dover, the 1-mile high-banked concrete track doesn't predict success in future races. There are no 1-mile high-banked tracks, and no concrete tracks, left on the schedule.

The quarterfinal round sandwiches a pair of 1.5-mile tracks (Charlotte this weekend and Kansas in two weeks) around the restrictor-plate roulette of Talladega. The semifinal round features a short track (Martinsville), a 1.5-miler (Texas) and a 1-mile flat oval (Phoenix) before the championship is decided on the 1.5-mile progressively banked oval at Homestead.

"Our speed is up there now, and you just can't make any mistakes and you've just got to be there," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "If we can get there [to Homestead], we can win it.

"We haven't been leading that many laps until Sunday, and we finished second and third and all those [top] guys were there. So, we've just got to keep executing like we did Sunday and see how we end up."

With all that, it would seem that the drivers would want to remain focused on 2017. But the drivers didn't mind a little bit of work on 2018 before they embark on the rest of 2017.

"We had to unveil them at some point, I guess," Johnson said. "This is different -- this is early. From a superstitious standpoint, we'll reserve our opinion until next year and see what happens. ... It's actually nice to have this over and done with.

"I don't have to worry about it during the offseason. So I can spend more time skiing."

Elliott will drive the Elliott family No. 9 next year, and William Byron will move into the No. 24 made famous by Gordon. There was Elliott, hanging with his 2018 paint scheme and number.

"This number feels like home to me, but I do feel like I have an obligation to finish the year out strong in the 24," Elliott said. "It's not only an obligation that I feel like I have because I'm switching numbers but I really want to have success in that car in that number."

Elliott probably would take anything as a distraction over how he lost Sunday at Dover. He saw a four-second lead evaporate at the hands of Kyle Busch, who passed Elliott with a little more than a lap remaining to earn the win.

Johnson and Elliott talked Sunday night about learning from the race and about moving on from it.

"You're never going to forget days like that," said Elliott, winless in 70 career starts. "You're always going to wonder the what-if game and whatnot in your mind and look back into the things that you could have or should have done differently."

Thanks to his three wins, Johnson is fifth in the standings while Elliott is 10th. They likely will need to qualify well and earn some stage points during the second round if they want to advance by points. A win is possible, but Johnson hasn't won since Dover in June, and Elliott still seeks that elusive first win.

"They know they're not in a points position with the stage points to carry themselves through easily and they've got to perform at a high level," said Gordon, who has an ownership stake in the organization. "I think they're ready to step up and do that."

Gordon said Johnson can't be counted out, especially with some of his best tracks coming up, and Elliott gained confidence in leading laps at Dover.

Both Elliott and Johnson indicated they felt they had a strong opening round of the playoffs.

"I think we're doing well," Johnson said. "Of course, we want more speed. Of course, we want to be faster. I think we're off to a good start [in the playoffs]. ... This format, in general, doesn't suit us.

"But we love a challenge and we'll figure it out."

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