No Obituary For Hendrick Motorsports Just Yet
Gordon Wrecked Early
Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at the Glen featured one of the worst performances by Hendrick Motorsports all season. Points leader Jimmie Johnson turned in a solid eight place although the final position was more a sign of surviving several late-race accidents. Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran into each other in one of those accidents, resulting in finishes of 30th and 34th respectively. Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's active leader in road course victories, struggled all weekend and drove a mangled car around the track all day, finishing 36th. At Pocono, many asked if Hendrick Motorsports could be beaten; after Watkins Glen, some are asking the exact opposite question. But it's not time to write a Hendrick obituary for the 2013 season just yet.
Coming into the race there was little reason to expect much from the Hendrick teams. As noted in Friday's column, Earnhardt and Kahne historically have struggled at the track. Gordon, despite having a number of wins on this track in the past, has not had much success in recent years. The Glen is one of only a handful of Sprint Cup tracks where Johnson has never won. So it's not earth-shattering news to see that all four teams ended with sub-par finishes.
The Hendrick road course struggles have not come due to a lack of effort. The team has tested at numerous tracks, both sanctioned and non-sanctioned, over the years. Max Papis, who drove Tony Stewart's car on Sunday and a noted road course specialist, tested Johnson's #48 car on multiple occasions. Papis also tested for Stewart on a road course earlier this year and it's likely that Stewart Haas Racing, a Hendrick satellite, shared at least some of that information. It's also worth noting that both Earnhardt and Kahne were in the top 15 before crashing and that the wreck was not of their doing. The results just aren't there yet.
Highlights (and lowlights) from NASCAR's trip to Watkins Glen 2013
All four Hendrick teams remain in contention for the Chase. If NASCAR's playoffs were to start tomorrow, Johnson would have the points lead and both Earnhardt and Kahne would make the field. Gordon would be on the outside looking in by 15 points but he's one race win away from making the field via a wild card. Moreover, the drivers that Gordon will be competing against for the last Chase spot are all drivers that Gordon statistically has finished better than over the next three tracks.
Gordon's best chance at both a solid finish and a victory over that period of time will come in three weeks when the series visits Atlanta. In the last ten races there, Gordon has a win, four top five and seven top ten finishes. Only Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards have higher top five percentages and their Chase slots are basically locked in. Gordon has an average finish of 7.7 during that timeframe; by comparison, Greg Biffle is at 19.2, Ryan Newman has an average finish of 20.1, and Jaime McMurray is at 21.5. If he comes into Atlanta within 10-15 points of tenth place, there's no reason to believe he won't have the opportunity to close that gap and head to Richmond in the Chase.
Wreck Won't Stop Kahne
Beyond Jeff Gordon, the other three Hendrick Motorsports drivers look good to remain in the playoff picture. Jimmie Johnson, who leads the series points and has four wins, is a lock. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has not yet won a race this year but his last two wins both came at Michigan, next week's stop on the schedule. If not for mechanical problems he may very well have won the race there earlier this season. Kasey Kahne is the only driver with two wins not inside the top ten in points; in fact, the only other driver with one win still outside 10th but in contention is Ryan Newman. All Kahne needs to do is stay ahead of him or anyone else with two wins (but outside the top ten) and he's in.
Yet raw numbers alone do not accurately show just how dominant Hendrick Motorsports has been this year. Nor can points or wild cards truly convey how far ahead of the competition they've been. Looking ahead to the Chase for the Sprint Cup, there's no reason to believe that another team will knock them from the pedestal they've been on for most of the last decade.
Cast Aside By Ganassi
One such example of how good Hendrick is rests with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. EGR formed an alliance with Richard Childress Racing several years ago to produce and sell Chevrolet engines. The two teams (EGR and RCR) would be the primary customers of such a venture. The idea was to save on costs by combining two known engine builders into one shop. EGR in particular was known for the horsepower their engines created. Yet this past off-season, the EGR race team opted to purchase engines from Hendrick Motorsports instead of from their own shop.
Consider what that means. EGR has a significant investment into the Earnhardt Childress engine shop. A number of teams run their engines and as the business co-owner, EGR receives all of the engine feedback its customers are willing to provide. Yet instead of using their own engines, they decided that it would be better to purchase the engines-at full retail cost- from another manufacturer. It's the racing equivalent of Ford deciding to put Toyota engines into their new cars. Why Hendrick is willing to sell those engines to his competition is another matter. As of today, nine of the top 17 cars in season points have a Hendrick engine inside.
Almost A Hendrick Driver
Despite having all four drivers under contract for the next several years, Hendrick Motorsports continues to work at developing future drivers. Chase Elliott is under a developmental contract and has had success at the ARCA and Truck Series level. JR Motorsports, Earnhardt's team now co-owned with Hendrick, is a Nationwide powerhouse. Drivers such as Brad Keselowski and Danica Patrick drove their full time before going on to other teams at the Sprint Cup level. JR current has Regan Smith competing for a title and a rotation of other drivers (including 27 year old Brad Sweet) running a full time schedule.
It's also worth noting that Chevrolet won the last ten consecutive manufacturer championships, largely based on Hendrick's success. Since 1995, Hendrick has won an unprecedented 10 driver championships as an owner. That's not counting the 2011 series title won by Stewart, who drove Hendrick Motorsports engines and chassis in his title run. If not for a handful of bad breaks in 2003-4, Johnson might well have added two more championships to the Hendrick mantle.
Certainly it's fair to ask questions as to how long Hendrick Motorsports can sustain this level of dominance. Joe Gibbs Racing has seven wins this season. Michael Waltrip Racing, once a joke, has become a solid second Toyota operation capable of winning races and competing for a championship. Kevin Harvick will join Stewart-Haas Racing next season, improving their on track performance. Penske Racing won last year's championship as a lame-duck operation for Dodge and time under the Ford umbrella will only benefit that manufacturer's entire operation. Any one of those teams may be the one to dethrone Hendrick someday.
But as of right now, none of them has done so. And as the old saying goes, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” In NASCAR today, Hendrick is indeed 'The Man' and one rough road course weekend isn't enough to change that fact.