Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Tuesday May 8, 2007
When it comes to the Car of Tomorrow races, there’s no doubt who’s been in total control : Hendrick Motorsports. Smoking the competition to the tune of four wins, ten Top 5s, and twelve Top 10s in just four races, it is obvious that the organization spent a tremendous amount of time and effort making their CoT cars the best they could possibly be, and the team’s top-notch performance has been so strong, it’s actually stirring up memories of Roush Racing’s impressive Cup Series feats back in 2005. It was that year where their efforts culminated in all five programs making that year’s Chase for the Championship, and Hendrick’s early domination in the CoT races has certainly put three of their four teams in the driver's seat for that type of success in the standings this season. Still, the ultimate question remains unanswered : Will Hendrick’s strength with the Car of Tomorrow translate into the ultimate prize by the end of the year, allowing the organization to walk away with the Nextel Cup Championship of Today? Chances appear high, but giving them this year’s trophy now, as some have seemed more than willing to award them, would be a big mistake with over six months left of racing to go.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why people are quickly willing to call off the title battle and wave the white flag of surrender before this year’s Chase even begins. Half of the events in the ten-race run for the championship are held with the Car of Tomorrow, which leads to a rather obvious conclusion that the Hendrick teams will have a leg up on the competition. While one of those races does happen to be Talladega, the Hendrick teams were so strong during the first visit to the Alabama track that they should handle the first superspeedway CoT race with relative ease. Clearly, these are five events in which the team is prepped to outshine their competition in nearly every aspect of the race.
As for the five events with the “old” car, well, Hendrick shouldn’t be too shabby with them, either. They’re all being held on intermediate tracks, facilities where Hendrick has not exactly struggled this year. Two wins, six Top 5s, and eight Top 10s out of a possible sixteen finishes is a rather good indication that the organization has the "cookie cutter" tracks figured out. So, if things in the Cup series remain status quo all the way through the Chase, on the surface it would be a very good bet that a Hendrick team will be hoisting the Cup by the time the season wraps up at Homestead in November.
However, if one thing is certain in NASCAR racing, nothing ever stays status quo.
Despite how it looks right now, there are going to be other teams figuring out how to make their new cars run up front and getting their act together. Joe Gibbs Racing appears to be the frontrunner to develop into Hendrick’s main challenger; they have actually led more laps in CoT races and appeared strong in each, especially with their No. 11 entry driven by Denny Hamlin. Aside from a 14th place finish at Bristol, where Hamlin looked strong but lost power late in the race, he has come home third in the other three CoT events, a factor to win in each until poor pit strategy or track position put him in a bad spot. Tony Stewart also had a rough Bristol, but was able to finish seventh, second, and eighth respectively in the other three CoT races. Hamlin and Stewart have also combined for five Top 10 finishes on the intermediate tracks this year, and there’s still no clue how well good each of their teams can be; both tend to run better as the weather warms and driver ability takes on added importance during the summer months.
Meanwhile, over in the Ford camp Roush teams have garnered six Top 10 finishes in CoT races themselves, with several more finishes landing just outside the Top 10. While their program is no longer as dominant as Hendrick, they are gaining ground on what it takes to make the cars run near the front and will most likely catch up to the pack by the time the Chase arrives. That’s critical, as there has never been a question about the Roush organization’s ability to run successfully on intermediate tracks, a reason they are always a factor and can never be counted out once the Chase rolls around in September.
Those are just a couple of examples of the teams that are going to be a factor by the time the Chase begins after Richmond in the Fall. The minds that work on NASCAR race cars are some of the best in the engineering field, and they will most definitely get a handle on the CoT more and more as the Summer progresses. Right now, Hendrick may have learned some tricks of the trade, but it is also a fact that secrets only last for so long in the Cup garage. The word will slowly work its way around to all the teams about how the Hendrick organization is achieving their success in these new cars, and it won't take too long for the rest of the them to learn how to get the job done as a result. By the time the season heads into the final ten-race sprint, expect quite a few more cars to be challenging for the win when the races are held at CoT tracks.
It’s true that Hendrick may be the number one organization in Cup racing for now; they have figured out the Car of Tomorrow, and their top three teams are hitting on all cylinders as far as putting the new car up front. However, while they will be able to take advantage of that for a short time, the rest of the teams are going to figure out what is necessary to make the new package handle eventually, and they'll be right up front with the Hendrick cars before too much longer. This team may be the big dog in the fight right now, but don't expect early success to automatically translate into a championship when there are so many other brilliant people in the sport and so many team owners willing to pay whatever it takes to make their program work.
Bottom line, Hendrick can’t keep this current stranglehold over the series forever. Contrary to popular belief, this year’s title trophy continues to remain unclaimed.
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