The 2007 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season was certainly one for which Hendrick Motorsports could be proud. Their roster of drivers: Gordon, Johnson, Busch, and Mears brought them 18 victories, 15 poles, and 84 top 10 finishes. Not to mention Hendrick also brought home 1st, 2nd, and 5th in overall points standings (Mears came home 15th). Hendrick was definitely the unbeatable juggernaut of the 2007 season. This was perhaps why the members of Junior Nation (At least the ones who didn't hate the idea of Junior being Jeff Gordon's teammate) were so happy to hear their favorite driver was relocating there.
Dale Jr.'s 2008 season has been a vast improvement over 2007, but what about Hendrick's other teams?
So far Hendrick has only claimed two points victories in 2008 and has racked up 4 poles, 17 top 5's, and 27 top 10 finishes. Hendrick drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd), Jimmie Johnson (5th), and Jeff Gordon (9th) are all currently running in the top 10 in points. Casey Mears continues to struggle in 27th in the points standings.
So aside from trading for the sport's most popular driver, what could have changed about Hendrick? Dale Jr.'s arrival doesn't seem to be the reason that the overall organization is stumbling just a bit; afterall, he's their most consistent driver of the season so far.
Analysts and fans alike are of the opinion that fatherhood has been a contributing factor to the slowdown in Jeff Gordon's career. Although, his career has been a bit up and down for the last few seasons (At least for the Boy Wonder anyway), those preceding the arrival of Ingrid and Ella Sofia (Possibly NASCAR's cutest toddler). Remember the drama of neither Gordon nor Junior making the Chase back in 2005?
Jimmie Johnson is a two-time champion (2006 & 2007). Many speculated during pre-season he would be a threat to tie Cale Yarborough's three consecutive championships. At this point, Earnhardt, Johnson, and Gordon all realistically have a shot at winning the championship as they are all still reasonably comfortable within the Chase (At least for now).
So what is it that's put a restrictor plate on Hendrick's Cup series domination?
Perhaps the fact that Joe Gibbs Racing got a new driver, a new sponsor, and a new manufacturer. All three seemed to inject a renewed energy into the team and propelled the organization to success early on in the 2008 season.
Sure, Tony Stewart's start to 2008 hasn't been the stuff of legends, but that's pretty normal for Smoke. Typically, he doesn't start racking up wins until summer. Joe Gibbs Racing's three Cup series drivers are all currently in the crucial top 12 in points. Kyle Busch, the new phenom of the sport is currently the points leader (Hamlin is 6th and Stewart is hanging on back in 11th).
Hamlin is on track to improve from last season, but the big story of JGR is Kyle Busch. Busch has claimed 4 wins, 2 poles, 9 top 5's, and 10 top 10's in 2008. Switching to JGR was definitely the right move for the younger Busch. In fact, NASCAR experts and fans are wondering if perhaps Hendrick might have made a better move by swapping Mears out for Earnhardt and keeping Rowdy.
Ultimately, getting rid of Busch was probably the best move for all parties involved. Busch and Hendrick never had the greatest relationship and communication between the team and driver seemed a bit strained. His dynamic personality and aggressive attitude didn't fit at Hendrick Motorsports. Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, was the perfect place for Kyle Busch to exercise his talent and electric personality. His nearly automatic chemistry with crew chief Steve Addington was definitely a key ingredient for a championship caliber team.
Hendrick Motorsports has stiff competition for the Chase in JGR; but the odds are high that a driver from either organization will be sitting on stage in December. Of course, it's quite likely that Kasey Kahne is going to be threatening for that spot with the way his team has suddenly taken off.
It isn't so much that Hendrick has fallen back a notch as it is that other teams are stepping up to match their level of competitiveness.
Who knows, if Roush Fenway's pit crews quit leaving tires loose, it could be anybody's game.
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