NASCAR: Is Hendrick Motorsports in an Early Season Slump?

Mark KeiltyCorrespondent IMarch 20, 2008

Who would have imagined that five races in Hendrick Motorsports Racing, with their stable of thoroughbred race horses, would be a combined zero for 15 in team starts at the beginning of the 55th season of NASCAR Sprint Cup racing?

For Hendrick and his crew of all-star racers this highly anticipated race season could well be turning into a dramatic Shakespearian tragedy.

Now, just hold on, you might say. And this writer will probably agree with you. But I am only going to remain patient for the next five races and here is why.

We have now raced at five tracks, some long, some intermediate and some short tracks. We can conclude that all the top NASCAR Sprint Cup teams are going to be competitive in 2008.

Dodge and Team Penske won the Daytona 500, Rousch Racing and his Fords are always tough, and Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing have already put newcomer and former Hendrick castoff Kyle Busch and his No. 18 into victory lane.

That leaves us with perennial powerhouse, Chevrolet. The No. 29 car of Richard Childress Racings (RCR) Kevin Harvick presently sits third in the Sprint Cup standings.

We all know that Chevy will be making some noise before this season is too much older.

The reason that I say that is simple, and that reason is Hendrick Motorsports.

This time last year we had only witnessed one race with the now infamous Car of Tomorrow (COT), and that would have been at last week's track—which was the "Bull Ring" known as Bristol.

Last year's race was won by Kyle Busch (in a Chevy). Heard of him?

Last week, we saw RCR win it with veteran Jeff Burton at the helm with—yes—his "Car of Today" Chevy. So the Chevrolets, which were dominant all of last year, are going to be just fine.

But the question remains: Just when will Hendrick Racing get their act together?

This question will be answered, as I stated earlier, in the next five races.

Last year the Hendrick cars—with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Busch driving—generally dominated the COT races. With the help of the COT races, Gordon and Johnson ran away with the points lead.

It was not until the last four races in the "Chase" that Johnson overtook Gordon, and went on to win his second NASCAR Championship in as many seasons.

Presently, Hendrick's all-star lineup of drivers sits as follows in the standings after five races: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is in fifth place with 686 points, 96 behind the points leader. Defending champ Jimmie Johnson sits in 13th place with 581 points, and the usually reliable Jeff Gordon sits just behind teammate Johnson in 14th place with 574 points.

Gordon has had an uncharacteristic start to his season, racking up two DNFs.  The "fourth wheel" on this team—Casey Mears—sits well back in 33rd position in the standings with only 368 points.

However, this season is still young with 21 races to go before the final 10 races to the championship. The next five races are crucial and will be the telling point for the Hendrick team.

Next week at Martinsville Speedway, is a short track where Jimmie Johnson won both races last year. Combined, the teammates have won eight of the last 10 races there!

Then comes Texas Motor Speedway, where Jimmie Johnson won the only race there last year. Dale, Jr. has also won there in the past.

After Texas, there is Talladega Superspeedway where the three Hendrick stallions have won an unprecedented 11 of the last 13 races.

The race following Talladega is at Richmond Speedway, a tough intermediate track, where Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. have both won twice since 2004.

The final race in this five-race sequence is at Darlington. This is the paperclip-shaped oval track where Jeff Gordon is King, having won there last year and he has won the last four of seven races there.

So it is quite obvious now. The next five races are imperative to this juggernaut of a race team from Hendrick Motorsports. These upcoming race tracks are where Hendrick Racing usually shines.

If this team is going to have success in 2008, it will be reflected in the next five races or else the ghost of William Shakespeare will be writing a short story about some short tracks. 

As for all those independent Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans out there, I am sure that you don't care about how his teammates (Gordon and Johnson) will perform in the next few races, as long as one of them is there to push Junior from behind at Talladega.

This time he will be without Michael Waltrip and his NAPA Autoparts Toyota pushing him to the checkered flag and all those toilet rolls!