Long: More questions than answers exist with Hendrick Motorsports
The refrain lately rings like a well-worn song. Joe Gibbs Racing wins. Team Penske challenges. Hendrick Motorsports trails.
Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 marked the second race in a row that Hendrick’s top car placed 10th. That would be great for a team like Roush Fenway Racing, not Hendrick.
While Hendrick’s teams loaded their haulers at Michigan International Speedway, Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated its fifth win in the last six races. Penske had placed in the top two in the past five races before Sunday’s event.
Well, there was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Daytona in July but Hendrick cars have combined to lead five laps since - all by Jeff Gordon.
One can argue that three of the last six races - Kentucky, Indianapolis and Michigan - featured a rules package that won’t be used in the Chase, so no need to worry too much about what has happened.
Maybe so, but that’s not the Hendrick way. The attitude there is to win, not make excuses. It’s why all those trophies reside there and why team owner Rick Hendrick often knows well ahead of time his early December plans - celebrating another title at the banquet.
While anything can happen in the Chase, Hendrick cars haven’t shown lately that they’re likely to break the organization’s recent title funk. Hendrick has one crown in the last four years. Fail to win the title this year and this stretch will match the one title from 2001-05 as the organization’s leanest period in terms of Sprint Cup championships.
One title every five years is something about any team would take, but Hendrick’s sustained success makes such an accomplishment seem more like a failure. This is an organization that has won an average of 10 races a year over the past decade.
Another argument for the lack of success lately for Hendrick can be that Johnson and Earnhardt are experimenting since they clinched Chase spots earlier. Nothing wrong with that. One should expect greater results once the Chase begins next month at Chicagoland Speedway.
But what about Gordon? What about Kasey Kahne?
Gordon’s final season has become more noteworthy for the accolades - a parade, a track briefly changing its name for him and all sorts of high-priced gifts - instead of what he’s done on the track.
Gordon and his team don’t look like a championship contender at this point. He has three top-five finishes this season. It’s hard to win a championship without winning a race and Gordon is not sniffing wins.
Gordon comments after Sunday’s 17th-place finish proved telling.
“We were able to hover around the top 12, which I was extremely happy with,’’ he said. “Unfortunately that is not where we ended up. Just couldn’t get going on the restarts which is no surprise. It happens to us every weekend.”
As for Kahne, he at least made it to the finish this time after placing 43rd at Pocono and 42nd at Watkins Glen the past two weeks. He’s not in a Chase spot and needs a win to make it.
Of course, Kahne won at Atlanta last year with just one race before the Chase field was set to make it.
Even with Bristol - a track Kahne won at in March 2013 - it’s hard to see this team winning at this point. Sunday’s 15th-place finish was the team’s best since placing eighth at Sonoma in late June.
The benefit of the Chase format is that struggles can be wiped away by a hot streak. Just recall Tony Stewart going winless in 2011 before the Chase and winning five of the 10 races to win the title.
But what happens in this year’s Chase will be based off actions and decisions made now. Today, Hendrick does not appear to be a championship contender. Tomorrow provides another chance to change that scenario.
Will tomorrow come soon enough for Hendrick?