With nearly half of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in the books, it's obvious that Hendrick Motorsports is again fielding the teams to beat.
Then again, it could be argued that Hendrick is fielding—or semi-fielding—a whole lot of teams.
In addition to the four teams officially under the HMS banner, a number of other teams are also fueled by Hendrick-powered engines. In the case of Stewart-Haas Racing, it's receiving technical support and assistance from Hendrick as well.
For the sake of this argument, let's limit this to the four Hendrick teams of defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne and the one Stewart-Haas team of driver Kevin Harvick.
Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt and Harvick have all shown they have what it takes this season to contend for a championship.
Kahne is obviously still working on it, but he's on the cusp of being eligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and almost certainly needs only one win over the next nine races to guarantee himself a spot.
Under this year's new format regarding qualification for the Chase and the elimination rounds that will follow, one win likely gets you in. If you can get on a subsequent hot streak, who knows?
Even so, the only teams outside the Hendrick umbrella of influence who appear to have any chance of derailing the HMS-fueled championship train are the Team Penske Fords driven by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
Let's start defending this theory by pointing out who else is out there.
Joe Gibbs Racing? Sorry, but not this year. Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin have each won one race, but Matt Kenseth—last year's title contender who finished runner-up to Johnson—has yet to win this year.
Furthermore, these guys just haven't been fast enough collectively to run up front anywhere close to as consistently as the Hendrick boys have.
Michael Waltrip Racing? Like the JGR Toyotas, the scaled-down MWR operation has yet to figure out most of the 1.5-mile tracks. Neither Clint Bowyer nor Brian Vickers has won a race yet.
Roush Fenway Racing? No way. This is the most perplexing operation of all, as the RFR Ford camp supposedly shares information with the Team Penske Ford camp and vice versa, but it hasn't come anywhere close to matching the Penske cars or drivers in performance.
It definitely makes one wonder just how much information is being exchanged between RFR and Penske. Penske drivers Keselowski and Logano have been just fine on the all-important 1.5-mile tracks. Meanwhile, the RFR group has been groping in the dark at those venues.
Take the megateams of JGR, MWR and RFR out of the mix, and you are left with Hendrick vs. Penske.
Travis Geisler, competition director at Team Penske, recently told Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com that the cooperation that Logano and his crew chief, Todd Gordon, have with Brad Keselowski and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, has been critical to the organization's efforts this season.
Geisler also noted the importance of both Keselowski and Logano getting off to relatively solid starts this season, with all the rule changes NASCAR implemented.
Keselowski won the third race of the season at Las Vegas and won again last Saturday night at Kentucky—a pair of 1.5-mile tracks. Logano won two of three races during one stretch in April, winning first at 1.5-mile Texas and then at the Richmond short track.
Speaking with Jensen, Geisler elaborated on his team's success:
I think the biggest asset to us right now is teamwork. Both teams are working off of each other and confidence. When you come out and you have a big rules change and some car changes -- the aero package changed a fair amount from what we've ever had before -- when we came out and had some success both guys were able to gain some confidence that their direction was working and it was generating results. That's the hardest thing to do is get confidence and what your mindset is on how you're approaching your setups week in and week out.
Geisler also said that Team Penske has stressed making certain much of the work is done back at the shop to make sure the race cars handed off to Keselowski and Logano are fast even before they hit the track. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of some organizations, RFR among them, that rely more on making big changes to correct problems once they arrive at a track for a race weekend.
There's kind of a philosophy on how you create your setup to show up with and right now we're showing up and we have decent speed in the cars and that just continues to build that confidence that you know what you're doing and you can generate a setup that will run well when you're sitting at your desk at the shop. So that's huge when you go to these last 10 (races).
Basically, the season now can be broken down into two parts: these nine races left before the Chase—when the 16 Chase participants are determined—and then the final 10 races that make up the Chase.
Johnson, who owns a series-high three wins and is best positioned to survive the new elimination format to the end, is clearly the man to beat. Harvick and at least two of Johnson's three true Hendrick teammates aren't far behind.
With that said, Team Penske is lurking right there too—far apart from anyone else. Keselowski offered another reminder of that by winning at Kentucky.
Unless otherwise noted, all information in this article was obtained firsthand by the writer.
Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!