With the Sprint Cup Series off this week, you might expect some of the senior writers of this staff or other publications would be absent as well. But that is not the case with me. Although I was sidetracked by a brief hiatus, the reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Having said that, somebody else whose name is also synonymous with NASCAR has returned as well – Jeff Gordon. After 17 starts at the 1.5-mile D-shaped tri-oval, Gordon won for the first time at Texas Motor Speedway Sunday, snapping a drought of 47 races since his last win at Lowe’s back in October, 2007. It was a welcome relief for both driver and crew chief Steve Letarte, who — after being credited with Gordon’s six wins and incredible 30 top 10s that year — was suddenly made out to be a pariah by the end of 2008. In just a 12-month span, Letarte became a source of anger, not elation, for many who pointed the finger at Gordon’s slump straight through to the guy on top of the war wagon.
How could Gordon be going winless, after all, while Jimmie Johnson has been running wild for three seasons, scoring a third consecutive title that included five wins in the final 12 races of 2008? I know the Chase makes it a competition between teammates; but aren’t these cars prepared in the same shop? Was there really that much of a difference between the two?
It’s a simple fact that got me to thinking this week. In this day and age of NASCAR, does it really make sense to knowingly equip one team with better parts than the other?
If there ever was an organization that could bring these thoughts to light, it would be Hendrick Motorsports. Truth be told, Hendrick was never a perennial championship contender until Gordon came along and scored his first title in 1995. Before the arrival of Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham, HMS was a top-tier team, to be sure, but never one that resembled the current juggernaut with benchmarks that all other organizations have come to measure themselves by. Sure, there were wins: Tim Richmond’s seven in 1986, Geoff Bodine and Darrell Waltrip’s Daytona 500 triumphs in 1986 and 1989, and Ricky Rudd’s runner-up finish to 1991 Cup champion Dale Earnhardt – albeit nearly 200 points in arrears. During this time, Hendrick was typically a two or three car organization, but all his teams seemed to be about on equal – if mediocre – footing.
They were good, but not great.
About the time that Gordon started winning races and championships, though, a funny thing happened. The car that at one time was the standard bearer of the Hendrick camp, the No. 25 car, suddenly became erratic, if not manic in its performance. It would be either blindingly fast but blow up, simply loaf around the back of the field, or — worst of all — become a combination of both. It wasn’t long until others began to notice that no matter who was at the controls of the third car at Hendrick Motorsports, he seemed to be on a different agenda than his teammates driving the No. 24 or the No. 5. It got to the point where the team was suddenly saddled with the most unfortunate of tags in a multi-car organization:
The R&D car.
Say what you will, but the performance of the No. 25 (now the No. 88 driven by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. since 2008) has never quite matched that of its stablemates. There may have been a race or two it won in the past decade; but those were far and few between compared to what the other cars were accomplishing. That could be the result of a disparity in driving talent; the ride has been filled by a revolving door of drivers once Ken Schrader left in 1996. But even during the worst of times, there appears to be a clear difference in equipment supplied by an organization that became a dynasty with Gordon by the time he won his fourth title in 2001. And when Johnson joined the team the following year — driving the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy — the chasm between teams grew even wider, with the No. 5 car soon joining the No. 25 as the two cars on the outside looking in.
While HMS struggles to make all four cars competitive, its main rival has proven parity is far from impossible. Roush Racing put all of their teams in the Chase in 2005, comprising half of the 10-car championship field. In comparison, Hendrick managed just one that year – the No. 48 team of Johnson — while Gordon joined Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch in finishing well outside the top 10. In 2007, the gap at HMS widened considerably, with Johnson and Gordon winning a combined 16 races while teammates Busch and Casey Mears combined to win two — one of which was based on a fuel mileage gamble. And while Mears may struggle to live up to the status of that last name, Vickers has performed admirably with his start-up Red Bull outfit, while Busch has more than proved his abilities in Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.
The main ingredient here seems to be machines, not the men.
Let’s fast forward to the present day lineup at Hendrick Motorsports. In one shop are the designated hitters of the team: The No. 24 and No. 48. The No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet was the face of NASCAR for most of the mid-to-late 1990s, and although “The Drive For Five” championship mantra wore itself out about halfway through 2001, Gordon’s 82 wins place him within just two more of tying Bobby Allison for third place all-time. And — if he stays healthy and active the next few years — Gordon will pull within striking distance of David Pearson’s second place tally of 105 wins, a feat believed nearly impossible as recently as 15 years ago. Meanwhile, the No. 48 car of Johnson and Chad Knaus have conspired to win the last three championships and 41 wins to date, putting them on pace to not just challenge Gordon’s records, but surpass them.
All that success from HMS — and that’s just in one building.
In the other shop, you have Mark Martin and Earnhardt, Jr. One driver should have won four championships and a Daytona 500 throughout a two-decade long career, while another is constantly reminded that he has not won seven championships — making his Daytona 500 win seem as if it was from another era to hear some describe it. No question about it, both of these drivers proved they were weekly contenders long before making their way over to HMS.
But the talent hasn’t translated on the race track, as the performance of both of their cars has not matched that of their teammates in 2009. Both were fast at Daytona this year, with Martin sitting on the front row and Earnhardt, Jr. having a contending car before he completely lost his mind and became a rookie in just a couple of short hours. By the finish, each driver was well outside the top 10, an ominous sign for what’s been a difficult beginning to both their seasons.
Of course, both the No. 5 and No. 88 machines have suffered their share of mechanical troubles as well. Martin was the victim of a pair of Hendrick hand grenades on consecutive weekends at California and Las Vegas, while Dale Jr. suffered an engine failure moments after Martin at Fontana — his troubles preceded by a transmission problem in practice. In contrast, Johnson dominated early in that California race, leading 74 of 200 laps, while Gordon in second stalked eventual race winner Matt Kenseth for the victory.
One week later, the gap in performance showed its ugly face once again. Johnson again dominated the first two-thirds of the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas before spinning himself silly, while Gordon led for 17 laps to come home sixth. And the difference in performance has continued to widen even when all four cars are running well. A broken shifter slowed Dale, Jr. to an eighth place run at Martinsville — the same race where Johnson won and Gordon came home fourth. Martin has won a pair of poles at Atlanta and Bristol, but has yet to come home with a top five finish this season in either — tracks where Johnson and Gordon routinely outperformed him once again. On his best days, Martin is consistently a sixth or seventh place car. Junior has been consistently a couple of spots behind, but pretty much in the same boat.
A boat that is simply not as fast as the ones built in the other building.
Does this mean that the No. 88 or the No. 5 is a test mule for the Nos. 24 and 48? After all, it’s the 24 and 48 that are consistently up front leading races, and as of last weekend battling each other for wins. The No. 5 and No. 88 teams have three blown engines, broken transmissions and shifters, and a wrecked race car between them — not to mention the stigma of nearly being on the bubble for making races just a few short weeks ago. That is a far cry from headline-making Victory Lane celebrations with the cute Sprint girls, with someone handing you a pair of six-shooters to fire off into the air. At this point, would you want to arm Dale Jr. following another lackluster run? Or worse yet, Martin after another engine failure? While Johnson and Gordon seem not to even know what bad luck is, the other two men have enough of it to already fill a season — and it’s only April.
While I think it is a stretch to say half of the organization is guinea pigs for Team Unibrow (yes, I know they aren’t _technically_ unibrows – but they are prominent – mine are too), the numbers tell the tale. No question about it, there is a noted difference in performance between the teams of Johnson and Gordon compared to Martin and Earnhardt, Jr. You could say that it’s because Martin is with a new team, or that the cantankerous cousins can’t control themselves — but I think there’s more than that going on in this case. At the risk of sounding like a Martin Myopian or an Earnhardt Apologist, I believe there’s something different at play, secret secrets made that only seem to improve just two of the four cars on the team. For while Jeff Gordon had a subpar 2007 that he has since chalked up to a bad back and lack of physical and mental preparation, he is clearly up to speed this year. But when will the other half of HMS start to resemble that of the two Sprint Cup Series point leaders?
Probably not until whatever is in their building makes it over to the other.