Hendrick still making plans for 4-car team next season

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Rick Hendrick still prefers running with a four-pack.

If he has his way, all four of those cars will be racing next season.

On Sunday, the longtime owner of one of NASCAR's powerhouse teams tried to douse the debate over a possible downsizing with one short statement.

''The plan is to run four cars next year,'' Hendrick said just hours before the start of the Brickyard 400.

Hendrick Motorsports, like the Cup series, is in the midst of a major transition.

Four-time points champion Jeff Gordon retired following the 2015 season, returned briefly last year to replace the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr., and now says he's finished with driving anything ''NASCAR related.''

Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver each of the past 14 seasons, has already announced he's retiring at the end of 2017. On Thursday, Hendrick chose 24-year-old Alex Bowman as Earnhardt's replacement.

That gives Hendrick two promising young drivers, Bowman and 21-year-old Chase Elliott, to put in the garage with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

But with sponsorship deals running out, Kasey Kahne underperforming in the fourth car, and Matt Kenseth saying he won't join Hendrick's team when his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing ends, speculation about Hendrick's future plans have been the subject of a lot of chatter.

Hendrick did not address Kahne's future with the team.

Still, instead of suggesting the team might scale back to three cars in 2018, Hendrick and Bowman went in another direction Sunday - mentioning a possible expanded schedule this season.

''We started talking about that, getting into an Xfinity car before the year is over, but we've just started talking,'' said Bowman, who has not driven full time in either of NASCAR's two top series this year. ''We have to kind of wait and see. I'd love to get back in a car.''

Hendrick did clarify the terms of Nationwide's new deal. He said Earnhardt's long-time sponsor signed a three-year contract with the team, though only the first year is to sponsor Bowman.

Earnhardt thinks it would be wise to stick with Bowman beyond 2018 because he believes Elliott and Bowman can become cornerstone pieces in the Cup's growing youth movement.

''He's got a good personality, he's good on social media and I think that's going to be an important part of it going forward,'' Earnhardt said. ''Winning helps. But I think what sells is how you relate to real people.''

One driver who won't be moving up next year is 19-year-old William Byron, who became the youngest winner of a major race on Indy's 2.5-mile oval Saturday. He's won three of the last five races and looks like another promising future star.

''We're not ready to cross that bridge yet,'' Hendrick said when asked about adding Byron to his Cup team in 2018.

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More AP auto racing: http://racing.ap.org

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