The Frontstretch: Fact or Fiction: Will Dale Jr. Make the Chase? And Other Hendrick Motorsports Topics by Mike Lovecchio -- Monday June 21, 2010

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In the debut edition of Frontstretch.com’s newest column, Fact or Fiction, we tackle Hendrick Motorsports after Jimmie Johnson’s win Sunday in Sonoma. Among the issues discussed are Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Mark Martin’s Chase chances, Jimmie Johnson’s reemergence as Chase favorite, and whether or not Jeff Gordon will win a race in 2010.

Jimmie Johnson served notice that he is still the favorite for the Sprint Cup championship with his win in Sonoma on Sunday.

With Sunday’s Win, Jimmie Johnson is the Championship Favorite
FACT

It’s amazing how as soon as one driver goes on a hot streak, fans and some media almost immediately forget about perhaps the most dominant driver of this generation. Sure, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last six races and is the leader in the clubhouse with five wins, but let’s take a quick look at the numbers through all sixteen:

  • Jimmie Johnson: 4 wins, 7 top 5s, 10 top 10s – 2nd in points
  • Denny Hamlin: 5 wins, 7 top 5s, 7 top 10s – 4th in points

Hamlin may be the hottest driver in the sport right now, but given a full sample this season Johnson has been equally as dominant. In fact, if you were to take away this three-race letdown last month in which he failed to finish in the top 15, the four-time defending champion would have just three runs outside the top 10 in his other 13 races. Two of those three were DNFs… an axle problem in Daytona as a result of the now infamous pothole, and an accident at the sport’s other restrictor plate wild card, Talladega. His other finish? A mediocre one (by the No. 48 team’s standards) of 12th at Atlanta.

Sprint Cup teams go through peaks and valleys every season – that’s just the way the sport goes. But what makes Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus such a formidable duo is that they limit their mistakes. To use a golfing analogy in the spirit of the U.S. Open, they shoot par for three and a half rounds and then pounce on the back nine of the final day (something Tiger Woods couldn’t do) which, in NASCAR’s case, is the Chase. As I keep saying, and will continue to say when certain media proclaim Denny Hamlin, or Kevin Harvick, or any other challenger for that matter the favorite for the championship – wait until the Chase.

The bottom line is champions know when to pounce, and now is not the time for the No. 48 team. They’re biding their time, they’re studying what other teams are doing, and they’re preparing for the final 10-race stretch. The fact that they still sit second in points, have four wins, and are now winning at tracks they haven’t before isn’t just impressive… it’s downright scary for the other 42 teams.

Jeff Gordon Will Win a Race this Season
FACT

In just sixteen races, Jeff Gordon knows just what it feels like to be in teammate — and longtime bridesmaid — Mark Martin’s shoes. Add in a rough Sunday at Infineon, where he played bumper cars with virtually everyone around him, and you can see the frustration mount in the Gordon camp.

But I don’t expect it to continue for long. While winless on the year, Gordon has still managed four top-3 finishes, and is now entering a stretch of the schedule where he’s been outstanding throughout his career:

Career Totals
New Hampshire: 3 wins
Daytona: 6 wins
Chicago: 1 win
Indianapolis: 4 wins**
Pocono: 4 wins

**- Track Record

Now, I understand there aren’t many tracks where Gordon hasn’t won – OK, just one – but he finished second at New Hampshire and Chicago last season, and is one of the best drivers ever at Daytona and Indianapolis. Oh yeah; Watkins Glen is right around the corner, too, and didn’t he win four of five races there in the past? Yes, sir. Gordon may be on the downside of his career, but you’ll still get to see that now famed No. 24 in Victory Lane at least once this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will Make the Chase in 2010
FICTION

What a moral victory it was for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. this weekend in Sonoma. On the Chase border for weeks now, Earnhardt fought hard at a track he’s not particularly fond of and finished eleventh. There’s no denying the team appears to be building momentum, and the No. 88 team now sits 57 points from the Chase. With Daytona around the corner, a race that Earnhardt fans – and myself – expect him to win, expectations are suddenly sky high for Junior and his Chase hopes. Statistically, however, the veteran is approaching a stretch where he’ll need more breakthrough runs like he had on Sunday to stay in contention.

Both Indianapolis (21.7 average finish) and Watkins Glen (22.6) are among his worst tracks, and he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the past at Pocono and New Hampshire, either. So if one driver breaks into the Chase from outside of the current top 12, it will be Clint Bowyer (14th in points) who has double the amount of top 10s as the No. 88. At one point this season, Bowyer even sat in the top 5 before engine problems at Bristol and an accident at Texas. Add in a solid list of drivers ahead of Earnhardt in the standings, and I just don’t see a playoff bid in the cards this year.

Mark Martin Will Make the Chase in 2010
FACT

Mark Martin has been widely inconsistent in 2010, and has yet to put together more than three consecutive top-10 runs. With the exception of a fourth-place result in the Coca-Cola 600, the No. 5 team has been simply mediocre and more of a top 15 car than race-winning contender. Still, he has a 72-point lead over the aforementioned Earnhardt and nearly a 100-point cushion over Bowyer to stay inside the top 12 (he’s currently 11th in the standings). And when it comes to upcoming races, Martin won at Chicago (over Gordon), finished second at Indianapolis, and recorded 13 of his 21 top 10s AFTER Daytona. While he won’t be as consistently strong this season, it should be enough to keep him in the top 12 heading into the Chase.

Contact Mike Lovecchio

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Stephen HOOD
06/21/2010 08:54 AM
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I say your right on about Johnson, although I’m not sure about Gordon. I don’t see Hamlin winning ten races this year, which is what he will have to do to win the championship.

As for Junior, I think he has a shot, especially if Hendrick gets the race car balance figured out. He’s main competitors for the last couple of slots seem to be having similar issues to Earnhardt, and Bowyer, Martin, and Edwards all have DNFs whereas Junior seems to be able to finish races. Junior and Bowyer are both averaging 16 place finishes with Edwards running 13 and Martin 15. I think Earnhardt has a better chance than Bowyer, is even with Edwards, and Martin has a slight advantage. There are some tracks in the closing weeks where Junior does poorly, but there are also more than a few tracks where he has the potential for top 5s and 10s. Who would have thought that Junior would come in 11th at Sonoma? He was one of the better movers from starting position to ending positions in the race.

noel_w
06/21/2010 08:56 AM
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I’ll agree, Johnson is the favorite for a championship, but only because he hasn’t retired! An upset is entirely possible.

While we will probably see Jeff in victory lane this season, I would say it will be his team that wins the race. It will more than likely be fuel mileage or 2 tires over Jeff’s once dominant driving style.
If you study the great driver’s careers, they all have an 8-10 year window where they sit atop the world. Except King Richard, but he is the exception that proves the rule. Gordon’s great years are in his past.

I don’t see Jr. making the chase either. If he does pull it off, I guarantee that he doesn’t actually contend for the championship.

I don’t know about Mark making the chase. He is certainly a smooth and consistent enough driver to pull it off. It just seems like lady luck isn’t smiling on him as much this year.

yankeegranny
06/21/2010 09:28 AM
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Johnson is the favorite to win another one, but somehow I think this is the year he will slip up.Surprisingly, I think we will see Harvick being the one to challange him. As for Gordon, He is annoying a whole lot of people and we all know what payback is and I think Jeff is going to find out how bad it can hurt him when he needs the points. As far as who will make the chase, I see Martin and Edwards dropping out. Martin has lost key crew members to the 88 recently and Edwards seems to have inherited that dark cloud that hung over Jr all last year. I think that Jr has turned the corner and is picking up steam. If he keeps picking up momentum, he will definately make the chase. As to Boyer, when he is on, he is great, but when he is off, he really is off. I think he may make the chase. The sleeper to drop out of the top 12 is Biffle. One or two really bad races and he will be the one not standing on the stage at Richmond.

VolcanoNacho
06/21/2010 10:17 AM
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Calling it right now, there is no way Jr makes the chase. I dont think he’ll do it next year or anytime in the near future. He just cant be competitive on all of the tracks. Sorry, we cant race at Daytona every race.

JerseyGirl
06/21/2010 01:06 PM
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I hope that Gordon wins a race this year, actually I hope he wins more than that, because they need the bonus points to contend when the faux championship chase begins.
I don’t think Jr makes the chase – still not consistent enough.

I sure hope someone, anyone – although I’d rather it wasn’t a Toyota team knocks Johnson off this year. Truly terrible bored and tired of seeing the 48 win.

ted
06/21/2010 01:08 PM
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For all those who say Jeff Gordon is done….you’re moronic idiotic clueless fools!!!…I can’t wait for Jeff to prove you a$$holes wrong!!!

RandyGoldman
06/21/2010 01:28 PM
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Jeff Gordon is done because Hendrick gives all of the good equipment and people to the guy that deserves it, Jimmy. Sorry, Jeff fans, but the only way Jeff comes back is if the King steps down from his 48 throne. Then Hendrick can decide between Danica and Jeff.

Mike
06/21/2010 02:06 PM
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You wasted a lot of words to get to the point that all NASCAR fans are already well aware of . Any team that Hendrick decides he wants in the “ Chase “ will be in the “ Chase “ . A simple phone call to Brian … some money or race sponsorship materializes out of thin air … and presto , a couple of debris cautions later the team is in .

the old guy
06/21/2010 02:24 PM
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I want Dale Jr. to make the chase. In fact, I want him to win 50% of the remaining races and go on to win the 2010 championship.
The maybe, just maybe, you pundits will find something else to write about.

DansMom
06/21/2010 02:30 PM
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Jersey Girl – this is a whole lot of talk about a championship for it to be a “faux” championship.

Did Marcose Ambrose also win the race because he was fastest all weekend? Or does that “faux” award still go to the one who crosses the finish line first?

earner
06/21/2010 03:11 PM
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For the sake of Nascar.. anyone but JJ..Jeff gets a win he’s still competitive (agree on potential payback tho) JR can make it but if hes not competitive in the chase he won’t care (makes sense) MM probaly in//Poor Burton That man is snake bit

RandyGoldman
06/21/2010 03:43 PM
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@the old guy I also want a toilet seat made of gold but its just not in the cards baby.

Jr nation is going to have to accept the fact that he is never going to make the chase, ever. He isn’t that good of a driver. The only races he will win in the future are rain delays and fuel mileage, and I think I could even win those.

DansMom
06/21/2010 04:25 PM
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as noel_w stated about Jeff Gordon, Dale Jr. is past his prime. The “prime” of his career was with DEI and I don’t see him being competative anymore.

JJ is IN the prime of his career at a time when no other driver is. That is why he’s so successful (and so hated). Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano – they are APPROACHING their prime, all driving for one team – scary

Can’t believe I’m agreeing with noel_w, but she does bring up an excellent point today.

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