Hendrick Motorsports Driver Shake-Up May Be Predictor of Shocking Season

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IApril 4, 2012

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 09: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L), driver of the #88 National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet, talks with Kasey Kahne (R), driver of the #5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet,  during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 9, 2012 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

After more than a year of anticipation, it was thought that Kasey Kahne would be the golden driver for Hendrick Motorsports this season. Now it is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who is the top dog at HMS with only one teammate within striking distance.

Earnhardt sits second in the standings, six points out, and Jimmie Johnson has come from negative points at Daytona to the 10th place ranking, 37 points behind the leader, Greg Biffle.

Kahne has been plagued with problem after problem, race after race and languishes in the 31st position in the standings with two finishes in the top 20, but out of the top 10.

Daytona saw his debut in the No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet ruined by an accident and at Martinsville, Kahne lost an engine.

Jeff Gordon, driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, was expected to battle Johnson not only for wins, but another NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

Gordon is 21st in the point standings after starting the season with engine problems at Daytona that relegated him to a 40th-place finish.

Gordon got one top-10 finish, though it looked as if he would be the driver to bring Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup victory at Martinsville. The accident in the final laps, on the restart, ended any chance of that.

Gordon has had some strong runs with fast cars, his team has had costly miscues that he can no longer afford to have.

MARTINSVILLE, VA - APRIL 01:  Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, drives to pit lane with a blown engine during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 1, 2012 in Martinsville, Virginia.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Johnson, and his team led by Chad Knaus, are getting up to speed, but they still don't appear as dominant as they did in the years he was winning championships.

The No. 48 team also tends to have mistakes on pit road that could prove costly as the season progresses.

Johnson was caught up in an accident at Daytona and finished 42nd. He was runner-up at Las Vegas and his battle for the win at Martinsville with teammate, Gordon, ended in an accident and 12th place.

Other than those two races, Johnson has shown consistency with four top-10 finishes, two of which were in the top five.

Two races on 1.5-mile tracks are next on the Cup schedule and that could bode well for Johnson and his standing in the points.

Kahne is out of the Chase unless he can win a couple races and secure one of the coveted wild-card slots.

Even if the team could run consistently in the top five, it is unlikely he will make the top 10 in points unless he makes that Victory Lane appearance.

It is indeed an odd turn of events to see Kahne in the predicament he is currently in after all the high expectations over his union with Hendrick Motorsports.

Rick Hendrick, Kahne's teammates and the crew chiefs Knaus, Steve Letarte and Alan Gustafson all welcomed not only Kahne, but the input of his highly respected crew chief Kenny Francis.

MARTINSVILLE, VA - APRIL 01:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet, receives a push from a safety vehicle after running out of fuel in the final laps of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway
Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Francis brought new ideas to Hendrick Motorsports that were utilized by the other teams within HMS, so that makes Kahne's statistics all the stranger.

Gordon can still climb toward the top 10 in the points with some consistent top-five finishes, but he really needs to grab that checkered flag. Odds are he will improve his overall performance.

The amped-up performance of Earnhardt was expected this season, but few would have bet that he would be the highest in the standings of the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers.

Junior has remained consistently strong in the standings and even with his 135-race winless streak still intact, the next win looms ever closer.

There are 20 points races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series before the drivers who make the Chase will be determined. That sounds like a long time, but with competition getting tougher, it is not.

The luxury of inconsistency and believing there are plenty of races left to make up ground quickly slips away as the drivers are forced to become more aggressive.

It is certainly an odd turn of events with the shake-up of drivers for Hendrick Motorsports. Never would the events that have unfolded for Johnson, Gordon and Kahne in 2012 have been predicted.

Those who doubt the leader of Junior Nation, wait for him to stumble. Junior Nation knows their driver is going to win this year and that he is Chase material.

Could the 2012 season be one of surprises with Earnhardt amongst drivers from MWR and perhaps Penske going against only some of the usual cast of characters in the Chase?

Six races into the season, there may be a shake-up with the point standings of the HMS drivers, but how it shakes out for the Chase may be shocking.