Much has been said and written about the perceived fall from dominance of Hendrick Motorsports. It is the farthest they’ve gone into a season without a victory since 2003, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are out of the top 12, Casey Mears is struggling to stay in the Top 35, etc. It seems as though this team is suddenly looking very mortal.
But let’s not get hasty. We’re only five races in and, in truth, the only really surprising faulty cog in the Hendrick machine has been Johnson. After winning two straight championships and 15 races in two years, the No. 48 team has only finished higher than 13th once in 2008, with a second in California. That’s a surprise, but even that isn’t impossible to believe, the car being run at the intermediate tracks is radically different from last year’s, so we’re going to see some anomalies out there, at least for a little while.
Jeff Gordon has two top fives and could easily have had four by now. And the new kid in the No. 88 hasn’t done too badly, it’s his best start since 2004, or since the last time he drove for a team that was capable of consistently building winning racecars.
Hendrick dominated in 2007 not just because they got a handle on the new car before anyone else did–they won the first five CoT races and nine of the 16 total–but also because they handled the transition better than anyone, winning nine of the other 20 races. This year they have no such transitional advantage, the other teams have fully committed to the new car and it is showing.
But enough about why Hendrick hasn’t been as dominant and won’t be in 2008. This weekend the traveling circus comes to a track where Hendrick Motorsports could win in Volkswagens.
Most of us have seen HMS dominate the last six races at Martinsville, probably without even thinking twice about what it must be like for the team to race there these days. Three and a half years isn’t a very long time; most of the players at Hendrick are undoubtedly still affected by the tragedy that happened in October 2004. Surely coming back to this track brings back the awful memory of that day.
They build engines and think of Randy Dorton. Someone wears his hat backwards, and they think of Ricky Hendrick. When they race against Tony Stewart, they think of Tony’s pilot Scott Lathram. When people see Rick Hendrick, they think of how he lost his son, his brother, two nieces and some of his closest friends in a single day; this not long after losing his father. No one gets over all of that in three years. When Hendrick Motorsports comes to Martinsville, it’s always at least in the back of their minds.
But seeing the way HMS has performed at Martinsville since, an observer could conclude that this team could shake off anything.
In the six races at the paper clip since October 2004, Hendrick Motorsports has won five, and they could be six-for-six but for the odd finish of the April 2006 race; after a late race caution, there was leftover “stay-dry” compound on the track; Jeff Gordon spun in it on the final restart and came home second to Tony Stewart.
Gordon and Johnson especially have been phenomenal at Martinsville since: Johnson has won the last three races; Gordon swept both 2005 races and has not finished outside the top five. Last season, Jimmie and Jeff were 1-2 in April and 1-3 in October. They have been great at other tracks too… last season both of them were great everywhere… but no team has dominated like this at one venue since DEI at Talladega.
Hendrick’s recent command of Martinsville Speedway is even more impressive considering it is a short track where danger lurks constantly for 500 laps. Like at Bristol, there is no place to hide there.
That Hendrick Motorsports has been able to perform so brilliantly at the site of their darkest hour is nothing short of remarkable. Granted, it’s their job, and they have to do it regardless. NASCAR doesn’t stop. But few organizations in sports or anywhere else could function as well with so much weighing on their mind. Most everyone in the company was close to someone who passed that day.
I won’t suggest that some supernatural force has been at work in southwest Virginia, because nothing has struck me as inexplicable about it, unlike with the wacky events following Dale Earnhardt‘s passing. (Except possibly for the aforementioned kitty litter incident… maybe Scott Lathram was getting a lick in for his driver.) Hendrick had already been running very well at Martinsville, with Gordon sweeping both races in 2003 and Johnson winning the race on the fateful day of the tragedy. What I will say with confidence is that this weekend will be when the Hendrick Motorsports team very likely finds whatever momentum it’s been missing this year.
Martinsville is a place where Hendrick has already raced twice in the current car, so the adjustment factor is not there. And judging from the performance of the Nos. 24 and 48 cars last year, the new car isn’t a problem for them at the paper clip. Something just seems to kick this team into another gear at this joint.
On top of all that, this weekend Hendrick Motorsports is putting someone else in a racecar who knows a thing or two about bouncing back from life’s blows at the very place where the tragedy occurred. Since I haven’t heard it said yet, the Official Columnist of NASCAR is declaring Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driving for Hendrick Motorsports, to be the sentimental favorite to win at Martinsville this Sunday.
Next time life knocks you down, remember how Hendrick Motorsports bounced back with a vengeance at the very place where they were knocked down the hardest. Get up and get back in the game. And win.
That may be the best way to honor the memory of the departed.