During the weekend at Fontana, Hendrick Motorsports showed two different sides—Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Both drivers qualified well, raced well, and finished well without much drama or incidents. For the other two Hendrick cars, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., their weekends were one they would like to forget.
Earnhardt's woes began on Friday. A relatively slow car and poor qualifying effort saw him take the 35th starting place for Sunday. This came after a rough week following his incident at the Daytona 500, in which fingers were pointed. He fessed up and said it was his fault in the end.
On Saturday morning, the bad luck that got him in the Daytona 500 came back to rear its ugly head. A transmission issue came up during practice, the car was constantly popping out of gear, and rather than just fix the small issue, the team decided to put a new transmission in. To the rear of the field he went.
During the race, things never seemed to go Earnhardt's way. After a while, he finally broke into the top 20, but by no means had a dominate car. Sometime after halfway, Earnhardt came on the radio and said the car was not running correctly. A few laps later, he said the car had most likely lost a cylinder.
Multiple pit stops and attempts to trouble shoot the problem were futile. NASCAR black flagged Earnhardt for failure to maintain minimum speed.
An apparent valve train failure, likely a broken valve spring followed by piston detonation, sent him to the house. With the DNF, he finished in 39th place.
Martin, everyone's sentimental favorite for the cup this year, had a quiet Daytona 500. In the end, he finished 16th, which many thought was good but not great for No. 5 team which has historically struggled the last few years. Coming in to Fontana, many expected at least a top 15 finish from Martin.
Nearly at the same time as Earnhardt, Martin came over his radio and said something was wrong with the engine. He first suspected just a broken valve cover, and the team told him to drive on. Right after a pit stop under caution, the engine let go in spectacular fashion, just laps before Earnhardt pulled into the garage.
Likely culprit? Same issue that plagued Earnhardt.
All of the while, Johnson had a temporary, but identical issue with his car coming out of gear at full speed as well. Luckily for him, nothing in the transmission was broken.
Everyone in the garage area knows Hendrick builds one of, if not the best, set of cars out there. But one has to begin to wonder—has the three straight championship seasons No.48 team gone to their garage's head? Is there an unwarranted comfort factor in the Hendrick stable?
Gordon has been the leader of the fleet so far, and his team has not won a points paying race in nearly two years. Earnhardt, Martin, and Johnson all struggled for the most part at the Daytona 500, and only Johnson and Gordon showed any fight at Fontana.
With three nearly identical engine and transmission failures, one has to wonder what is happening in their garage right now. Sure, they will fix the problem, but having such engine failures is a huge blow to teams which are trying to build momentum.
Whatever the issue was, look for the problem to be resolved by Hendrick and Chevrolet, and fast. Toyota has improved greatly in their reliability department, which means Kyle Busch will be around to hover at nearly every race this year.
For right now, Martin and Earnhardt's teams might want to get the championship picture out of their head, and instead get a string of good finishes in order to secure one of those coveted top 12 spots for the chase.