In the debut edition of Frontstretch‘s newest column, Fact or Fiction, we tackle Hendrick Motorsports after Jimmie Johnson‘s win Sunday in Sonoma. Among the issues discussed are Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin‘s Chase chances, Johnson’s reemergence as Chase favorite and whether or not Jeff Gordon will win a race in 2010.
With Sunday’s Win, Jimmie Johnson is the Championship Favorite
It’s amazing how as soon as one driver goes on a hot streak, fans and some media almost immediately forget about perhaps the most dominant driver of this generation. Sure, Denny Hamlin has won three of the last six races and is the leader in the clubhouse with five wins, but let’s take a quick look at the numbers through all 16:
* Jimmie Johnson: 4 wins, 7 top fives, 10 top 10s – 2nd in points
* Denny Hamlin: 5 wins, 7 top fives, 7 top 10s – 4th in points
Hamlin may be the hottest driver in the sport right now, but given a full sample this season Johnson has been equally as dominant. In fact, if you were to take away this three-race letdown last month in which he failed to finish in the top 15, the four-time defending champion would have just three runs outside the top 10 in his other 13 races. Two of those three were DNFs… an axle problem in Daytona as a result of the now infamous pothole, and an accident at the sport’s other restrictor-plate wild card, Talladega. His other finish? A mediocre one (by the No. 48 team’s standards) of 12th at Atlanta.
Sprint Cup teams go through peaks and valleys every season – that’s just the way the sport goes. But what makes Johnson and Chad Knaus such a formidable duo is that they limit their mistakes. To use a golfing analogy in the spirit of the U.S. Open, they shoot par for three and a half rounds and then pounce on the back nine of the final day (something Tiger Woods couldn’t do) which, in NASCAR’s case, is the Chase. As I keep saying, and will continue to say when certain media proclaim Hamlin or Kevin Harvick or any other challenger for that matter the favorite for the championship – wait until the Chase.
The bottom line is champions know when to pounce, and now is not the time for the No. 48 team. They’re biding their time, they’re studying what other teams are doing and they’re preparing for the final 10-race stretch. The fact that they still sit second in points, have four wins and are now winning at tracks they haven’t before isn’t just impressive… it’s downright scary for the other 42 teams.
Jeff Gordon Will Win a Race this Season
In just 16 races, Gordon knows just what it feels like to be in teammate — and longtime bridesmaid – Martin’s shoes. Add in a rough Sunday at Infineon, where he played bumper cars with virtually everyone around him, and you can see the frustration mount in the Gordon camp.
But I don’t expect it to continue for long. While winless on the year, Gordon has still managed four top-three finishes and is now entering a stretch of the schedule where he’s been outstanding throughout his career:
New Hampshire: 3 wins
Daytona: 6 wins
Chicago: 1 win
Indianapolis: 4 wins**
Pocono: 4 wins
**- Track Record
Now, I understand there aren’t many tracks where Gordon hasn’t won – OK, just one – but he finished second at New Hampshire and Chicago last season, and is one of the best drivers ever at Daytona and Indianapolis. Oh yeah; Watkins Glen is right around the corner, too, and didn’t he win four of five races there in the past? Yes, sir. Gordon may be on the downside of his career, but you’ll still get to see that now famed No. 24 in victory lane at least once this season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Will Make the Chase in 2010
What a moral victory it was for Earnhardt Jr. this weekend in Sonoma. On the Chase border for weeks now, Earnhardt fought hard at a track he’s not particularly fond of and finished 11th. There’s no denying the team appears to be building momentum, and the No. 88 team now sits 57 points from the Chase. With Daytona around the corner, a race that Earnhardt fans – and myself – expect him to win, expectations are suddenly sky high for Junior and his Chase hopes. Statistically, however, the veteran is approaching a stretch where he’ll need more breakthrough runs like he had on Sunday to stay in contention.
Both Indianapolis (21.7 average finish) and Watkins Glen (22.6) are among his worst tracks, and he hasn’t exactly set the world on fire in the past at Pocono and New Hampshire, either. So if one driver breaks into the Chase from outside of the current top 12, it will be Clint Bowyer (14th in points) who has double the amount of top 10s as the No. 88. At one point this season, Bowyer even sat in the top five before engine problems at Bristol and an accident at Texas. Add in a solid list of drivers ahead of Earnhardt in the standings, and I just don’t see a playoff bid in the cards this year.
Mark Martin Will Make the Chase in 2010
Martin has been widely inconsistent in 2010 and has yet to put together more than three consecutive top-10 runs. With the exception of a fourth-place result in the Coca-Cola 600, the No. 5 team has been simply mediocre and more of a top-15 car than race-winning contender. Still, he has a 72-point lead over the aforementioned Earnhardt and nearly a 100-point cushion over Bowyer to stay inside the top 12 (he’s currently 11th in the standings). And when it comes to upcoming races, Martin won at Chicago (over Gordon), finished second at Indianapolis and recorded 13 of his 21 top 10s AFTER Daytona. While he won’t be as consistently strong this season, it should be enough to keep him in the top 12 heading into the Chase.