No matter how many cars you have running on the Sprint Cup circuit these days, it’s difficult to get more than one to run competitively each week. For proof, look no further than Penske Racing, whose lead driver Kurt Busch simply dominated Sunday’s race, while teammates David Stremme and Sam Hornish Jr. both struggled and failed to run better than 23rd.
Occasionally throughout history, there’s an exception to the rule of thumb; back in 2005, Jack Roush pulled the miraculous feat of getting all five of his cars to make the Chase, and Richard Childress Racing went three for three in 2007 and ‘08. But far more often, multi-car teams find themselves split in two amidst a package of bad luck, poor performance and an inability for team chemistry to spread throughout an entire organization. One, two, maybe three cars hold up the mantle for a car owner who mixes happiness with angst at another team turning into mush before his eyes.
That vision pretty much describes Rick Hendrick’s life as a car owner year in, year out. Never able to get all four cars into the 12-team Chase since it began in 2004, one of NASCAR’s greatest success stories has always been towing along at least one car in his stable that ultimately fails to make the grade.
At least this year, the man’s decided to switch it up a bit. For once in his life, the seven-time champion car owner doesn’t have just one lone vehicle failing to meet expectations.
He’s got two.
Indeed, the Team Formerly Known As The Hendrick All-Stars finds itself at a crossroads four races into the season. It’s an organization that still prides itself on being the pinnacle of NASCAR success; but it’s also a four-car team that’s splitting apart into two very different directions.
We’ll get to the Bad News Bears of this group in a minute. But to understand how bad it is for two of the sport’s biggest stars to be on life support – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin – you’ve got to understand how the other half has got it so good. And on the “beauty” side of Hendrick, it’s an ugly truth both men have to face – life for their two other teammates couldn’t be better. Sitting in Hendrick’s better half is the two-car tandem of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, the four-time champ and aspiring four-time champ who have spent years swapping places as the sport’s best. While Johnson holds the latest hardware, right now it’s Gordon’s turn to shine, with two runner-up finishes in three weeks enough to leave him winning in the most important category: Sprint Cup points. As I wrote not too long ago, it’s Gordon showing more focus and determination than any driver on the Cup circuit to date, out to prove that Johnson hasn’t knocked him off the perch of Hendrick’s No. 1 driver for good.
“I tell you right now, we’ve got the best team out there,” he said Sunday. “They’re showing it on pit road. They’re showing it in the confidence that they have, like Steve Letarte making calls and the way we’re communicating… and certainly those race cars.”
That attention to detail is shared by Johnson and his crew, so determined to maximize every advantage crew chief Chad Knaus came up with an “emergency” plan on Sunday to deal with a second NASCAR trainee in their pit box. Half the field wouldn’t have cared an extra set of eyes was walking around their car; for Knaus, it was an unnecessary distraction that needed to be dealt with for their team to save that tenth of a second and move one more step up the finishing order. 13th in the standings after just four races, everyone knows it’s only a matter of time before the No. 48 enters the top 12. Confidence, history and the success of the team next door is all they need to push forward as we head towards the short-track swing.
You’d think that rock hard self-esteem would be enough to spill over into all four Hendrick Chevrolets. But everyone knows the on-track relationship with Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Eury Jr. is on a different type of roller coaster. Johnson and Knaus are the ones that leave you ready to get back in line and see just how it worked all over again; Junior and Eury just leave you queasy and looking for the nearest trash can.
“We are doing about as miserable as we can do without being too upset about it,” said Junior on Sunday after finishing 11th, his third run outside the top 10 in the first four races. Once again, Junior’s race was typical of the last 15 months with this team: great in the beginning, so-so in the middle, and downright awful in the end – right when it matters the most. Lucky to catch enough cautions and Lucky Dogs to stay on the lead lap, Junior was about a 25th-place car by race’s end as he spent much of the final 100 miles trying not to wreck. That is, if you don’t count his yelling over the radio at Eury a crash course in how not to interact with a crew chief.
“We struggled,” Junior admitted with the fatigue of a man who’s yet to land on his feet since spinning Brian Vickers in front of the field at Daytona last month. “This weekend off will be good for everybody.”
Well, not everybody. While Junior destresses, the speculation surrounding Eury will only intensify as the series prepares for the meat of its upcoming schedule. For as the pressure piles up in the No. 88 camp, someone’s going to have to take the fall for poor performance – and I’m guessing it’s not NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. Eury firing rumors are already popping up; at one point, there was a bogus rumor spreading through the garage this weekend that he’d be gone as soon as yesterday afternoon. In reality, his actual leash will likely last a few months longer; but there’s no question the time for change at the No. 88 is close at hand. Earnhardt has spent 15 months toiling under the weight of Hendrick expectations, expecting this organization to provide him with everything he needs to be successful.
Instead, he’s learning the hard way that money doesn’t buy happiness. At the moment, Junior’s No. 88 has about $20 million more to work with in funding than the No. 71 of David Gilliland. But both have the same number of top-25 finishes – two – in a year where having third-tier status at Hendrick is getting thrown in Junior’s face far earlier than anyone could have expected. I guess in these tough economic times, no one likes to see so much money get wasted so badly for long.
“It is frustrating,” he said. “I look at my teammates and they are running better, we should run the way they run.”
Across the way, the No. 88 tries to look to their shopmates at the No. 5 for inspiration. Indeed, this was supposed to be the year new hire Martin gave Earnhardt the guiding hand needed for him to succeed. At 50, Martin’s championship bid was supposed to be the story of the season, with Hendrick bending over backwards to give him the best equipment, the best crew, the best engines.
Too bad he forgot one thing; Lady Luck doesn’t take bribes.
That’s been the one bad estimate in Hendrick’s master plan, a thought that a change of scenery would take the monkey of innocent victim off Martin’s back. But this is a man who’s finished runner-up in the points four times when he could have easily won the championship twice. It’s a man who’s been on the short end of every controversial stick, a man who makes a living at finding ways to pull defeat straight out of the jaws of victory.
Sadly, you can’t throw money at a problem like that. And despite a pole at Atlanta, Martin’s season has been a rubber stamp on what he’ll be known for – would haves, could haves, and might have beens. Two failed engines, a blown right-rear tire, a poor pit call – four top-10 performances were turned into four finishes so bad, a wreck at Bristol might force Martin to qualify for races on speed beginning at the end of March.
What a jarring contradiction for an organization possessing perhaps the speediest car on the track right now under the same roof.
“We haven’t reached our full potential yet,” said points leader Gordon in a fit of excitement Sunday night. “We’re still gaining momentum.”
In the off week, the trick will be for Earnhardt and Martin to figure out where that’s coming from – before it’s too late.