As we roll into the sixth race of the 2008 season, three stories have dominated the news surrounding the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: tires, rain, and Hendrick Motorsports’ struggles.
Tires were more a product of Goodyear being overly cautious, particularly at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Considering that the Cup series is running a new car this year at many tracks that it wasn’t run or tested on in 2007, Goodyear has to play a guessing game. Their stance is to err on the side of caution, thus the hard tire at AMS that drew the ire of many competitors, most of all second-place finishing Tony Stewart, who would complain if his mother didn’t make his pancakes perfect. He’d probably run her out of the house and then blame her for it in the media.
Next week will be a test unlike any other when the teams unload at Texas Motor Speedway. Only two drivers, Clint Bowyer and Juan Pablo Montoya, have turned laps at Texas in the new car. Although similar in design to Atlanta, TMS is quite a different animal. Goodyear has already stated that they will not bring the Atlanta tire to Texas, but will run a compound similar to last year with a slightly different construction.
Rain has been a factor in three of the five events so far – washing out qualifying at California and Bristol, and delaying the race at Cali until Monday. Snow and rain were issues at Atlanta as well, though the race went off as scheduled.
So that brings us to the topic du-jour – Hendrick Motorsports and their less-than stellar start to the season.
A quick examination of 2007 shows how high the bar was set by the 24 and 48 teams. Jeff Gordon was on pole for two of the first five races – California and Bristol. His finishes were 10th, 2nd, 2nd,12th, and 3rd; an average of 5.8. Jimmie Johnson had an average finish of 12th over the first five runs – a crash at Daytona and sixteenth at Bristol dragging down wins at Atlanta and Vegas, and a third at California. Kyle Busch won the Bristol race, had three top-10s, and was sitting sixth in points after Bristol. New Hendrick teammate Casey Mears was 26th in points with a pole and one top-ten to his credit.
So the bar was set very high for Hendrick. Consider that in those first five races, only Bristol was run with the new car – the “Car Of Tomorrow” (COT) or “Winged Wonder” as I prefer to call it. Once on the short tracks, Hendrick was even better; with Busch winning Bristol; Johnson taking Martinsville and Richmond; and Gordon winning at Phoenix and Darlington - not to mention Talladega, in the old car.
Looking at the first twelve races of 2007, Hendrick drivers won nine times… Nine times Mrs. Bueller – and Mears broke through with his first win at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600.
There was a reason for the short-track success for Hendrick. David Green was an invaluable asset for the team in performing hundreds of laps of testing in the new car, and this showed in the runs the team had. Late in the season, when it looked like a two-man race for the championship between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, those two teams passed on COT testing opportunities in order to focus on their title runs in the old chassis.
Now an examination of the 2008 season-to-date is in order. The team struggled at Daytona, with the 24 breaking the suspension, Mears crashing, and Johnson just not running well. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. represented, taking wins in the Bud Shootout and his 125-mile qualifying race, and then coming home ninth in the 500. Finishing position at Daytona is irrelevant to how a driver’s season will end, as both Johnson and Tony Stewart have finished in the 40s and still won the championship.
The washout that was California was a mixed bag for the team. Gordon dominated Sunday evening before the rains came, and went on to finish third behind Johnson when racing resumed Monday. Junior and Casey were victims of “weepers” where water came up through the track surface in turn two, causing Mears to spin and inadvertently crash into Earnhardt, eliminating both.
At Vegas Junior bounced back for second, and Gordon bounced off the wall in a freak accident at the end that ruined what would have been a top-three finish for the 24 car. Johnson was just plain awful, and Mears ran a respectable 13th – keeping his car intact.
Atlanta would prove a fair day for the team as well, with Earnhardt third, Gordon on pole and finishing fifth, Johnson 13th, and Mears 17th. This was the first race all four cars would finish. Two weeks ago at Bristol things looked promising with qualifying being rained out, thus putting Johnson and Gordon on the front row. They would slide backward from there – Junior ran a solid fifth, Gordon was 11th, Johnson 18th, and Mears brought home a battered car 42nd.
The standings show that Earnhardt is the only Hendrick car currently in the top-12 in points at fifth, with Jimmie 13th - 14 points behind 12th-place Martin Truex, Jr., and Gordon 14th - seven points in arrears to Johnson. Casey Mears, on the other hand, is fighting for his position in the top-35 – currently 33rd and only 16 points ahead of Jamie McMurrary, who is 36th.
The finishes and points positions may say that Hendrick has been struggling in 2008, but what it doesn’t tell you is this: Hendrick Motorsports has more top-three finishes than any other team, and has just as many top-five results as Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, and Roush Fenway Racing. And now we’re getting to the part of the schedule where Hendrick dominated last year.
Qualifying for Martinsville is complete, and guess who is on the pole? Jeff Gordon – for the seventh time in his career. Gordon has more wins at the track than any active driver – seven, and two from pole. He will have the best pit stall selection for Sunday’s Goody’s Cool Orange 500, and 50 percent of the winners in the 60 years NASCAR has raced at the half-mile track have come from the first four starters.
So the odds are stacked in Gordon’s favor, but there is even more to show the likelihood of a big points bounce on Sunday for the 24 team. Kasey Kahne is the closest starter (sixth) to Gordon who is currently ahead of him in the standings. Points leader Kyle Busch is eighth on the grid, and Tony Stewart is ninth. Johnson starts tenth, while Junior is 22nd and Mears in a precarious 39th. With McMurrary starting fifth after a go-or-go home qualifying effort, Mears might lose his guaranteed starting spot when the series comes to Texas next week.
A number of guys in the top-12 in points start well behind Gordon, at a place where track position is everything, and crew chiefs will have to make dicey pit-stop strategy decisions to get their driver up front.
I quote a Jimmy Buffett song for my fellow Jeff Gordon fans, “Come Monday, it’ll be allright…” I expect Jeff to win if not perhaps finish second to local hero Denny Hamlin, who starts to Gordon’s right and has run well at Martinsville.
All things considered, the Hendrick team’s, “Struggles” would be considered a great start for most others at this point.