The Frontstretch: Déjà Vu To You, Too: Hendrick Teams Virtually Guaranteed 2009 Sprint Cup Title by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday July 15, 2009

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Déjà Vu To You, Too: Hendrick Teams Virtually Guaranteed 2009 Sprint Cup Title

Voice of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Wednesday July 15, 2009


With a much-needed off week prior to the 16th running of the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis next Sunday, the Sprint Cup teams fighting for a spot in the Chase are gearing up for what will be a slugfest in the final seven races to determine who gets a shot at the championship following Richmond in September. With less than 200 points separating fifth from 13th in the standings, the margin for error for those competing for the title no longer exists. Each and every team has to be virtually flawless from here on out, executing excellence at each event to qualify for championship contention this Fall.

Yet while that is all well and good, making for good story fodder down the stretch, their efforts will prove a moot point altogether… because the 2009 Sprint Cup champion will come out of the Hendrick Motorsports stable.

Yep, it’s true. At the risk of sounding anti-climactic or a total fan-boy, it is all but a foregone conclusion at this point. All one has to do is take a cursory look at the standings these days to know that somebody should tell Chris Daughtry that it is, in fact, over.

Tony Stewart, in his Stewart-Haas No. 14 Chevy, while essentially the fifth stepchild of Hendrick Motorsports is leading the Sprint Cup standings and has scored two wins already this year – the first owner/driver to lead the points since the late Alan Kulwicki in 1992. While they are a separate team, SHR receives chassis, engines, and engineering support from Hendrick Motorsports – and even hired one of the key individuals of Jimmie Johnson’s streak of dominance the last three seasons in crew chief Darian Grubb.

Behind Smoke is Jeff Gordon, bad back and all, proving that the Drive for Five is still very much alive. He has one victory so far this season, but what is more impressive are his four second-place finishes, half of which could have very easily been wins. Gordon has been quiet yet steady, taking cars that are often top 10 at best and willing them to the front either by skill or brilliant race strategy atop the pit box by Steve Letarte, Gordon’s oft-maligned crew chief. The Rodney Dangerfield of the war wagon, Letarte has regained his form calling races and preparing cars much like those that produced Gordon’s eye-popping six wins, 21 top 5s, and 30 top 10s in 2007. If there is a team that appears to be building momentum, it is the No. 24, no doubt.

Lurking back in third is Gordon’s teammate, reigning three-time champ Jimmie Johnson. You never really know what to make of the No. 48 team at this point in the season. Are they lying low like the last few years, keeping pace with everybody until the Chase begins in earnest at Loudon in September? Or are they really having a dysfunctional 2005-type season where they win a lot of races, but when push comes to shove, go Barney Fife and blow their big toe off? Through 19 races this year, Johnson has a pair of wins with three second-place finishes; however, Johnson made an uncharacteristic slip late in the going at Chicago. He then started overdriving the car, making things worse for himself while bouncing off of Kurt Busch (and half the field) like a pinball in the closing laps of the 400.

Despite that latest mistake, keep in mind this is also the same group that in their 2006 championship season had a string of five races in a row where they won or finished second, only to win four consecutive races during the Chase the next year to tie the modern-era record. Like a dancing bear at a circus, you never know when Johnson and Co. will suddenly stop the sideshow hi-jinks and go berserk on everybody, making a light snack of the competition.

Further back, sitting seventh in the standings is the other half of Stewart-Haas Racing, Smoke’s fellow Indiana native Ryan Newman. A driver who many had written off or simply forgotten about the last couple of years sans his 2008 Daytona 500 victory, newcomers to the sport might be thinking, Ryan who?

While Tony Stewart’s charge to the front of the Sprint Cup standings has stolen all the headlines in 2009, teammate Ryan Newman has turned Stewart-Haas Racing into a two-pronged title threat.

But rest assured, Tony Stewart knows who Ryan Newman is more than anyone. Much more than just corporate teammates, Newman and Stewart are the best of friends off the track as well. Of all of the components that combine to make team chemistry a happy mixture, the addition of Newman might just be the key cog in the machine that Stewart-Haas Racing has become. Sure, the Hendrick-sourced gear is what makes them fast, but what really allows the group to tick are two men who trust each other, communicate better than perhaps any pair in the garage, and genuinely like each other and help the other to succeed.

Newman is still trying to get that first win of 2009 and came agonizingly close at Loudon, his fuel cell running bone dry just as the track got soaking wet. His five top 5s and nine top 10s after what was a slow start to the season are sure to improve and deliver a win shortly, though — perhaps even as early as next weekend at Indy.

Those showings of Newman to date, while impressive, also happen to mirror those of the biggest surprise to some this season: the new pilot of the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet, Mark Martin.

There are precious few who thought that the No. 5 car would be leading the series in wins at this point in the year. Only the most die-hard, bitter Martin fans, those who still sport Valvoline T-Shirts with the backwards-leaning No. 6 or have faded Winn-Dixie Racing bumper stickers emblazoned on the cab of their pickup trucks would have considered the 50-year-old from Batesville, Arkansas a threat to win his first championship.

But as much as Martin tries to downplay it, the talk of a title will increase substantially should he maintain his 11th-place position in the points. That would leave him leading the standings by 10 if the Chase started today, courtesy of NASCAR’s seeding system that rewards victories obtained during the regular season. If you look at Martin’s four wins, it’s important to note that three entailed having to beat the No. 48 team in the process. Martin outdrove Johnson at Darlington, while Gustafson and Martin combined to save just enough fuel to outlast the Lowe’s team at Michigan. Last week, he capitalized on a rare mistake by Johnson at Chicago to secure yet another win. That meant Martin has gone from being the feel-good story of the year to being a prime threat to winning it all, having his best season in over a decade when he won seven races in 1998.

What about everyone else, you ask? For various reasons, the rest of the field seems to be a bit too much behind the curve at this point. When the 2009 season began, there were perhaps two teams that looked like they would be able to trip up the No. 48 bunch: The No. 99 team of Carl Edwards and the No. 18 of Kyle Busch. Edwards would have won the title last year under the “traditional” points system, while the mercurial Kyle Busch is picking up ’09 pretty much where ’08 left off – a picture of erratic performance and poor racing luck, hinting that NASCAR’s most exciting driver is still missing something that will allow him to run for the title in the series’ elite division. Meanwhile, Edwards has struggled along with the entire fleet of Ford Fusions, going winless in a season where Blue Ovals have failed to visit Victory Lane since California the end of February.

Looking through the rest of the top 10, there aren’t any real threats that outshine any of the five Hendrick – or Hendrick-themed – teams, even accidentally. Kurt Busch seems a perpetual eighth-place car, while Denny Hamlin shows flashes of brilliance, only to be undone by racing luck that pales in comparison only to that of his teammate Kyle Busch. Who knows what brand of car Kasey Kahne will be driving in a few weeks, and Juan Pablo Montoya could very well be 15th in points by the time the checkered flag falls on Richmond in a couple of months.

Might there be some flawed logic here on my part? After all, a dominant first half of the year does not guarantee results in the final 10 races. One only needs to look back to 2005, when Roush Racing had the deck stacked. Only 10 teams were eligible for title contention then, and they had a better than average shot at winning it all, as 50 percent of the Chase field bore Roush logos. Yet although three finished in the top 4 in points at the end of the year, no Roush pilot could outduel Stewart, who won not by dominating like Johnson in recent years but by finishing consistently and simply not beating himself.

To be sure, the Hendrick teams, while fast and smart, have shown a few chinks in the armor along the way this season, proving they are not infallible. But when those chinks still leave the top 3 drivers with a clear separation over the rest of the field … they’re not big enough dents for others to make serious headway.

That being said, this welcome off week is not really a week off for the Chase contenders, who will try as they might to close the gap while undergoing a little extra preparation for the second-biggest race of the year. It’s one that will be under the microscope like no other after the unmitigated disaster that was the 2008 Brickyard 400 – courtesy of the Goodyear tire debacle. All of those bugs have been ironed out according to those who have tested tires at the speedway (including the Stewart-Haas duo), so the race should go off without a hitch. Yet while that is good news for the 43 cars that will be competing, it could still spell trouble for the majority of the field. After all, the top three drivers currently in the point standings have won this race amongst themselves the past five years, so why should that change this year? More than likely, it won’t — just like the championship outcome.

Until someone can show me an organization that can outrun any of these men on a consistent basis, you might as well pencil one of the five Hendrick teams in as your 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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07/15/2009 08:13 AM

I think you’re giving a little too much credit to HMS for Stewart Haas’ success there Vito . In fact , i’m not sure very much credit should be given to anyone other than SHS . First , look up how many teams have an engine lease program with HMS , not only this season , but lets say for the past 10 years . You’ll find a number of different teams have gotten engines from HMS . You’ll also find that not one of those teams ever ran anywhere near the front of the pack . Chassis ? HMS has sold and leased cars to many teams over the years , but again , none of them were particularly successfull . Haas racing has been supplied with the very same engine and chassis deal for years , do you remember them leading the points during that time ?
Now along with the chassis and engines , you feel that Darrien Grubb is responsible for the SHR winning ways . Well , Darien is a nice guy , but hardly the driving force behind Tony winning . Dariens’only real claim to fame was winning the Daytona 500 while helping out on the 48 team due to one of many suspensions of their regular crew chief . Now a Daytona win is a Daytona win , no doubt about it . But when thats really your only major accomplishment , maybe certain writers are giving you far more credit for things than you truly deserve .
Heres the deal . SHR receives the 40% complete chassis from HMS and builds it the rest of the way . They receive race ready engines from HMS . SHR does all of their own fab work , they build all of their own bodies ( aero being the single most important thing at many tracks , they are obviously doing a great job ) and set up and tune the cars to the SHR specs . SHR gets setup info from the HMS teams , and also shares theirs with HMS . The way Tony has been running , i imagine HMS is using mostly SHR set up sheets .
As for the hiring of one HMS crew chief being the turn around factor , let me remind you that the man who pretty much runs things is not Grubb , but Bobby Hutchens , and he is assisted by another proven winning crew chief in Matt Borland . Not to mention Tony Gibson . And of course the driving talent of Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart .
Even a rank newcomer to the sport knows full well that the team , the full team , is responsible for any success , and equally for any defeat . You can try to play off the success of Stewart Haas as just a “ step child “ of HMS . But the Stewart Haas team is anything but a fifth Hendrick team .
Lastly , i wouldn’t be so quick , or so mindless to bestow the championship on HMS just yet . Even if you know nothing about Nascar , you must know that the last race of the season is a long way away .

07/15/2009 09:07 AM

Well said Michael…

I’m tired of everyone giving HMS the credit for the success of the 14 and the 39.

If they were struggling (like everyone thought they would) do you think we would be having this same discussion. Hell, no… everyone would put the blame solely on Smoke and his overambition and not a mention would be made of HMS and their “role” in SHR.

The only thing that I somewhat disagree with you on is Grubb. He is turning out to be quite the Crew Chief; maybe even one of the best in the garage. His chemistry with Smoke is astounding and he has been making some pretty great calls. A little more Kudos should be given to him for putting the 14 at the top of the standings!

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
07/15/2009 09:21 AM

Not trying to attribute all of Stewart-Haas’ success to HMS – just trying to illustrate that if a champion is to be crowned this year, it is going to be someone from that group. Which in the case of Newman and Stewart, has considerable influence from HMS.

I think they would do well to get Gibson, Borland, and Hutchens out in front a little bit more if they wish to dispell the notion that they are a 5th and 6th team.

07/15/2009 10:13 AM

I agree that when push comes to shove in the chase, it will be a Hendrick chassis that will be in the Cup presentation. As has been pointed out, though, SHR has been the only Hendrick-equipped team to actually run at the front, meaning Tony’s buch is doing a heck of a lot more than just putting decals on the cars.

And if it weren’t for a load of bad luck, Ryan would be much further up in the standings than he already is!

07/15/2009 10:23 AM

You might as well call it “Hendrick Cup”. And as for Hendrick-Stewart Racing…..

07/15/2009 01:18 PM

Well, every year is Hendrick’s to lose isn’t it?

Doesn’t seem like the Chase has made much of a difference from the old points system. In fact, with the competition the way it is now we NEED the old points system brought back.

If Kurt and Denny can keep bangin’ on Jimmie that would be good.

Martin winning would be great for the sport. As would Tony. Gordon, well ok. Jr.? Forget about it.

But this sport desparately needs a different champion with a different owner.

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