Finally Mortal? Hendrick Motorsports Struggling Its Way To NASCAR Chase

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IAugust 25, 2010

Inquiring minds: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson confer during a qualifying round for the Brickyard 400 at Indianpolis Motor Speedway.
Inquiring minds: Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson confer during a qualifying round for the Brickyard 400 at Indianpolis Motor Speedway.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

One look at the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings and you'll see Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson prominently featured in the top 12, mixing it up with the usual suspects like Kyle and Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle.

Hendrick Motorsports' reliable duo has won a combined total of eight championships and 140 victories in a span of 18 years, with the No. 48 team's beginnings stemming from the creation of the DuPont contingency back in late 1992.

Both racers sit second and ninth in the Chase rankings, which the majority of the field would envy, especially those who've peaked suddenly but find themselves realistically without a shot at the postseason.

Not to mention, they're among the greatest racers in the past 20 years, having their fair share of prestigious victories as well as besting some of the sport's most prolific drivers in Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, and Mark Martin.

Gordon recently earned a Chase berth by virtue of placing 11th in last Saturday night's Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, in spite of the fact that he's not scored a top-five finish in the past five events. Attribute his consistency, with 10 top-fives and and 13 top-10's scored thus far, although he lacks that pivotal victory in 2010.

On the flip side, while Johnson has five important wins, eight top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes, he's logged in an uncharacteristically high amount of DNFs (four), something sharply in contrast to his titles in 2006, 2008-'09.

Yes, he also hoisted the Cup in 2007, but he also scored (you guessed it) four DNFs, but those came during the early stages of the year, long before his nearly android-like stats in that year's Chase.

However, he's hardly looked like the same guy who was nearly invisible in his previous four campaigns, making mistakes on the track as well as in the pits. When's the last time you heard that the No. 48 team have a run-in with a fellow competitor during a round of pit stops or crew chief Chad Knaus having trouble diagnosing an ill-handling Lowe's Chevrolet?

So the question that inquiring minds might be asking out in NASCAR Nation is, "Is Hendrick Motorsports truly mortal?"

Well, as in the case with any elite organization in all sports, there comes a time when struggles creep in after years of success and domination.

Richard Petty's team is the greatest example in stock car racing, with his original group, known as Petty Enterprises, dominating the circuit with patriarch in Lee Petty crowned three times as the champion in the sport's early years before "The King" took home seven titles.

After that, the No. 43 team crept its way towards irrelevancy and finally as a defunct but honored thought in the minds of NASCAR fans and followers.

Baseball's seen that with the New York Yankees' struggles from the 1980s to late '90s, while Boston endured title droughts with the Celtics and Red Sox for many years.

How'd their streaks end? Simple. The almighty dollar.

Need I mention that the Raiders haven't done much since Night Court was still on NBC's "Must See TV?" But that's a story for another time.

For those believing that this may be the end of Hendrick's dominance in Sprint Cup racing, you might be the same folks who believed Brett Favre would finally retire this summer or that Tiger Woods was going to win a major in near Cinderella fashion (come on, show of hands on either myth!).

That said, they've not looked like the same team that had three of its four entries dominate the Chase standings last season, with Johnson and Gordon's combined eight wins complimented by teammate Mark Martin's five victories. When all was said and done, it was the No. 48 team's nearly accustomed hoisting of the Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with Martin and Gordon rounding out the top three.

In a reworded fashion, per Simon and Garfunkel's hit song "Mrs. Robinson," for those wondering about the No. 5 and No. 88 teams, there's only one way to put it:

Where have you gone, Mark Martin? Fourteenth place in points with zero victories. Go Daddy?

What's that you say, Dale Earnhardt Jr? Eighteenth place, no Chase for you today in car No. 88, Car 88...

Perhaps some of Hendrick Motorsports' struggles can be attributed to the fact that the organization, particularly with the No. 5 team, began to work and allocate some of its resources to the fledgling efforts of Earnhardt Jr. and his headwrench Lance McGrew, who looked about as lost at sea as some celebrities on some corny dancing program.

Good intentions aside, perhaps the move greatly affected the organization in small ways, trickling over the months to the point that a bit of the AMP Energy/National Guard team's struggles have impaired its sister teams.

Sharing setup information can be helpful in some cases, but the quartet at Hendrick Motorsports probably all have different driving styles and preferences in terms of the car's feel in terms of the shocks, coil binding, as well as the way their cars drive at certain points on the track.

For HMS fans, it was particularly troubling when none of their entries finished in the top-10 during last month's Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has traditionally been a good track for them in years past. The best that Hendrick's racers could do in the "Greatest Spectacle in Motorsports" was an 11th-place effort by Martin and his No. 5 Go Daddy Chevrolet.

How about at Watkins Glen, where Gordon bagged a 10th-place finish, while Martin, Earnhardt Jr, and Johnson placed 19th, 26th, and 28th respectively? Those barely resemble the powerhouse dream team efforts of a group that typically contends for victories at road courses.

Could it be those factors that make the competition smell blood after years of following Johnson's Chevrolet? Or the fact that everyone else has managed to step it up while Hendrick's teams have remained at "full strength?"

There is the resurgence movement known as Richard Childress Racing, with Kevin Harvick looking more like the man that was predicted to win races and titles than a driver who some believed underachieved in the No. 29 Shell ride.

This season, he's looked more like the driver who the remaining 41 drivers have tried to best since 2006, logging in three victories, 11 top-fives and 16 top-10 results. Smell like a winner to you?

Couple that with the Gibbs duo of Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch streaking with wins and Penske Championship Racing's Kurt Busch bring the "Mo" to Mopar's only hope and you've got yourself a helluva Chase coming up next month.

Whether Hendrick steps it up a notch or two remains to be seen, as they simply cannot limp into the Chase based off consistency and wins from earlier in the season. If that's the case, it may finally be the break that 38 other teams on the circuit have waited for since 2006.

Ultimately, it just means the sport may have itself its newest champion after all these years.

And an offseason in which Hendrick Motorsports goes back to the drawing board and finds more ways to dominate in Sprint Cup racing.


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