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 HMS – 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 fives 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 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 LifeLock.com 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?
But rest assured, Stewart knows who 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 SHR 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 fives 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 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% of the Chase field bore Roush logos. Yet although three finished in the top four 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 points 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.