It has been a tough season for Hendrick Motorsports. It all started in Speedweeks when Hendrick’s four drivers combined to wreck 243 cars (just an estimate) before the Daytona 500 even started. The Great American Race didn’t go much better. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second, but Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson were each involved in wrecks while Jeff Gordon blew an engine.
Three of Hendrick’s four teams started the season in a hole. Johnson dug himself out of it fast, but Victory Lane had eluded the five-time champion until Saturday night. Kasey Kahne was mired in 32nd in the standings after five races, although five straight top 10s have him back in Chase contention (Jeff Gordon is going to need some time).
It took a little while, but finally NASCAR’s most dominant team (10 of the last 17 Sprint Cup titles) is at the front again and is *HOT*. Here are the _drivers_ who are *HOT*, and those who are *NOT* after Darlington.
*Kyle Busch* is first, second and fourth in his last three races and has led laps in each event. After a slow start, Busch is putting himself in contention each week. With Charlotte and Dover coming up on the schedule, both strong suits for this driver the No. 18 most likely won’t be leaving the top 5 anytime soon.
It’s not just Busch that has stepped up his performance, but *Joe Gibbs Racing* as a whole. Busch’s teammates, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano, both ran well at Darlington and have been showing strength as of late. They didn’t get off to a fast start, but the Gibbs cars are contenders now.
*Jimmie Johnson* could easily have five wins this season. He just couldn’t get everything to go right at the end of the other races he’s dominated. At Darlington, he finally got it, marking the historic 200th victory for Hendrick Motorsports.
Outside of getting wrecked at Daytona and Martinsville and engine problems at Talladega, Johnson has finished in the top 10 at every other event. The series’ lap leader has also paced the field in every race except Daytona and Bristol.
*Denny Hamlin* has been almost as good as his teammate Busch. He was 23rd at Talladega after getting caught up in a wreck, but was first, fourth and second in the three races outside of that. The consistency from week to week is finally there for the No. 11 team and Hamlin has shown that he is going to be a factor to win a bunch of races in 2012.
*Kasey Kahne* passed all of his early-season misfortune to teammate Jeff Gordon. Kahne led laps for the second consecutive week at Darlington and has five straight top-10 finishes. This guy couldn’t get out of his own way at the start of the year and at one point was 32nd in the standings.
Not anymore. Kahne has climbed to 16th in points and has his best track coming up next on the schedule, with three career victories and six top-5 finishes at Charlotte. It could be argued that the hottest driver at Hendrick might not be Johnson after all.
Heading into Richmond, *Kevin Harvick* was coming off back-to-back top 10s and was headed to two of his best tracks, the Virginia 3/4-miler and Talladega. He didn’t get the results he was looking for at either. Harvick finished 19th at Richmond and 25th at the sport’s largest superspeedway.
At Darlington, Harvick ran outside the top 15 for most of the event and ended up 16th, dropping down to eighth in points. The No. 29 team has shown a lot of weakness in 2012, part of his organization’s struggles as a whole. The absence of Clint Bowyer hasn’t been discussed much, but he was the one driver at Richard Childress Racing that competed at Harvick’s level last season. Who does the No. 29 team share notes with now?
*Ryan Newman’s* season has gone downhill since he stole a win at Martinsville on April 1st. Newman hasn’t cracked the top 10 since and has been outside the top 19 in four of the last five races, including a 23rd-place result at Darlington after getting caught up in the end of Kurt Busch’s full-lap wreck.
That’s troublesome. Newman has slid to 14th in the standings and with Kahne surging forward and other drivers that can win races right near him (Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose), he isn’t looking like a safe pick for The Chase.
*A.J. Allmendinger* tops the practice charts almost every week only to let us all down in the race. As a race progresses, you can count on one thing, Allmendinger sliding backwards. A late accident with Jamie McMurray gave the ‘Dinger his fourth result of 30th or worse (33rd), but even without the incident the Penske driver was looking at 16th, maybe.
Allmendinger excelled at picking up spots late in races last season, which makes this one even more of a head-scratcher. Unfortunately, for the No. 22 team there is no sign that times are going to change.
I’d like to start a pool where fans can guess what will happen to *Jeff Gordon* each week. I’m predicting the No. 24 car is struck by a random bolt of lightning and catches fire during the Coca-Cola 600. From blown engines to blown tires to accidents, it has all happened to Gordon multiple times in 2012 and the four-time champ can’t seem to get out from under the black cloud he is under.
At Darlington, it was a series of inexplicable left-rear tire failures for Gordon. He has dropped to 24th in the standings, one spot behind Mark Martin (who has started three less races) and is just ahead of Kurt Busch and Regan Smith. Who would have thought?
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