Kahne's Pocono Win Leaves Hendrick Looking Even More Formidable in Chase

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistAugust 4, 2013

CONCORD, NC - JANUARY 23:  (L-R) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, team owner Rick Hendrick, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon pose for a picture during the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour on January 23, 2013 in Concord, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Outwardly, Kasey Kahne's win and Jeff Gordon's second-place finish in Sunday's GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway was just part of one race on the 36-race NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.

But in the bigger picture, Kahne and Gordon each moved up one spot in the standings with five races remaining to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, putting all four Hendrick Motorsports cars in the top nine.

And while so much has been said about Jimmie Johnson's dominating season thus far, and how many believe he's the odds-on favorite to win the championship, what Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kahne and Gordon have also done in 2013 spells trouble for every other driver, crew chief and team owner in the upcoming Chase.

The way I see it, other drivers that make the Chase—most likely to include guys like Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth—are not going to be doing battle solely with Johnson; they're going to have to overcome the overall Hendrick juggernaut even before they have a shot at JJ.

Now, the naysayers may point out that neither Earnhardt nor Gordon has a win thus far this season. That's true.

But when the Chase begins, every non-Hendrick driver that makes the 10-race playoff is going to have to get around and past Gordon, Kahne and Earnhardt before they can contemplate taking on Johnson.

(That is, of course, provided Gordon and Kahne don't suddenly take a nose-dive and miss the Chase.)

In a sense, Gordon, Kahne and Earnhardt are setting themselves up to not only make their own championship bids, they'll also run interference for Johnson en route to his sixth career Cup title.

Sure, Gordon is still in search of his fifth Cup title, while Kahne and Earnhardt both want their first.

But if there's one thing I've learned in watching Johnson over the last decade, it's that he has an uncanny knack to not only bring out the best in his own team during the Chase, but also bring out the best in his teammates as well.

In 2006, Johnson won the first of his record-setting five consecutive championships, while Gordon finished sixth and then-HMS teammate Kyle Busch finished 10th. Then-teammate Brian Vickers failed to make the Chase that season.

In 2007, the second of five consecutive years that Johnson would go on to win the Cup crown, Gordon finished second while Busch finished fifth. Then-teammate Casey Mears did not make the Chase.

In 2008, Gordon would finish seventh while Earnhardt would finish 12th and Mears would again fail to make the Chase.

In 2009, it was a 1-2-3 Hendrick trifecta with Johnson winning the title, followed by Mark Martin in second and Gordon in third (Earnhardt failed to make the Chase).

In 2010, while it was another great year for Johnson, Gordon finished ninth and both Martin and Earnhardt failed to make the Chase.

Still, in two of the toughest Chases Johnson had—in 2007 and 2009—his teammates were right there with him, keeping others from mounting challenges.

Hendrick Motorsports qualified all four of its drivers for the Chase for the first time in a single season last year, although Earnhardt was not a factor after suffering a concussion in the fourth race of the Chase at Talladega, and was forced to miss the next two races.

Even so, Johnson came close to getting title No. 6, but fell short when he wrecked himself at Phoenix in the second-to-last race and then ran into mechanical problems in the season finale at Homestead that ended his hopes.

But if things stay the same way that they are currently, it's going to make it all the harder for Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Roush-Fenway Racing (maybe even Furniture Row Racing if Kurt Busch makes the Chase).

Some might say HMS could potentially face the same fate that Roush Fenway Racing did in 2005, when all five of its drivers made the (then) 10-driver Chase, only to see all fall short as Tony Stewart went on to win his second Cup championship.

But something tells me that won't happen in 2013. The way I see it, JJ wins crown No. 6, Kahne finishes second, Gordon third and Earnhardt fourth, making it a 1-2-3-4 HMS sweep of the Chase.

Everyone else—coincidentally, all other non-HMS drivers in the Chase—will be relegated to also-ran status.

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