NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Should’ve, Could’ve, Would’ve for Hendrick Motorsports

Four cars. Each one of them being fully funded by multi-million dollar companies. But something went very wrong and it wasn’t the new playoff format.

A nightmare is probably an understatement for what happened to Hendrick Motorsports during the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Three of their four drivers were eliminated from the Chase after having a realistic shot to have all four of them contend for the championship.

Credit: CIA Stock Photography
Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne probably aren’t smiling too much after being eliminated from the Chase at Talladega. Credit: CIA Stock Photography

Brad Keselowski walked off into the Talladega sunset after his victory, leaving Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne to settle for whatever they can get in the final four races of the Cup season. Each of the three HMS drivers struggled through the first six races of the Chase. With the championship race coming down to either winning or being consistently inside the top 10,  these men have failed to check off either of those items. Kahne was the only one of the three Hendrick drivers to be eliminated on Sunday that recorded a top-10 finish in Round 2 of the Chase.

“It feels relieving to go down swinging,” said Johnson after being eliminated. “The last two weeks were really poor. At least we went down swinging. Today I went down swinging, and I take pride in that. Am I disappointed in our Chase? Absolutely. ”

For Johnson, his season has been sub-par to his standards. The six-time champion has three victories through 32 events, yet has a career-low 14.7 average finish. Since winning at Michigan in June, the No. 48 team has been winless with just four top 5s. The bad luck started Daytona in July, and following that event, Johnson has seven finishes outside of the top 15. That is not how a championship caliber team runs.

“It’s no secret that the middle portion of the year has always been a challenge for the No. 48,” Johnson told me during a press conference at Pocono. “When you look at the start of the season and the end of the season, where a lot of those tracks are the same, especially in the Chase era that has really worked to our advantage. And the summer stretch has been tough on us. This year has been as inconsistent as probably any of them for us. But literally, when the Chase starts, we roll into our ten best tracks. So, we’re trying to maintain sanity until then and obviously keep progressing our cars through the end of summer.”

The tracks that he believed were his best have been anything but that. Although he ran well spanning Michigan until Dover in the late summer, Johnson’s bad luck came back at Kansas, where he finished 40th. Consistency is a key, and these three drivers have not had that this year.

Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has had one of his best seasons in quite some time. With the third-best average finish in the field, the No. 88 car has consistently been up front. Well, that was until his win at Pocono in August. Since that win, he’s recorded just two top-10 results. Over the past three races, he has not shown the speed that he had earlier in the season. Through the first 14 races, he led at least five laps in nine of those events. But over the past 18 contests, Earnhardt has led just six of them; including 31 laps at Talladega on Sunday.

This season was a step in the right direction as he prepares to work with a new crew chief in 2015, but Earnhardt is a driver that works with momentum. When he has a handful of solid runs, he begins to piling them on like he did in the early summer. However, it has clearly not worked in his favor after wrecking at Bristol, which put a large hole in his confidence.

Then, there is Kasey Kahne.

Kahne has not had a great year by any means. Calling 2014 a “good year” would probably be a hyperbole.

With just three top 5s this season, Kahne has severely under-performed. After narrowly clinching a spot in the Chase with a victory at Atlanta, the No. 5 team has been incredibly inconsistent. Kahne has not showed much speed throughout the past seven races. The top 10 at Charlotte kept his chances of surviving Round 2 alive, but they were slim at best.

In 10 of the 32 races this year, Kahne has finished 20th or worse. His contract expires at the end of next season, and he hasn’t blossomed into the potential champion that HMS predicted he would be when they signed him.

There were points this year where Kahne was the fastest car on track, yet he had bad luck take over. That bad luck and a lack of handling with the new rules package has plagued this team. With an average running position of 14.6 – the lowest in the HMS stable – he has not shown this team’s full potential.

All three of these drivers could have run better throughout the Chase. Yes, bad luck might have hit them, but they had multiple opportunities to perform better. Even with the old Chase format, these three drivers probably would have not run well enough to finish inside of the top 5 in the championship standings. Heck, Kahne might not have even made the Chase.

Johnson made it clear that the Chase was going to be a strong point for the entire organization, yet Jeff Gordon is the lone driver that will be representing Rick Hendrick come Round 3 starting at Martinsville.

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Randall

Small correction, Dale Jr. has actually shown good speed during this 3 race segment. He led 45 Laps at Kansas,and was leading when he lost his tire, and drove to the lead at Charlotte and was top 10 when his shifter broke. He has returned to early season form, but alas, not early season results.

Bill B

Yes but for some reason the rules are set up where those two races where bad luck bit him out-weighed all the weeks where he piled up good finishes. How arbitrary. But that’s the way Brian wants this to work.

Hope all the Jr and Johnson fans tune out the rest of the season and ratings plummet. Not sure that’s the way it will go down but I hope so. I want BF to realize that no amount of manipulation on his part will guarantee high ratings and more fans, only good on-track racing every week over a long period of time can do that.

Russ

The real driving force is the networks instiable need for something to show. Given that fact Nascar’s audience, while declining, is still large enough to command major money from those networks. It can only be threatened if another sport passes it audience-wise. While this will inevitably will happen it wont be within our lifetimes. So be prepared for more of the same for years to come.

JohnQ

Good point. With so much time to fill I doubt the networks really care about the ratings as long as someone is watching. The Camping World Truck Series draws slightly more viewers then Test Pattern and that mess is still broadcast.

Russ

Having said that the move toward ala carte television may have some impact. But will it be a plus or a minus for the France family? Note that I differentiate between stock car racing and the France family.

Bill B

On the plus side (from my point of view), now all HMS resources can be focused on Jeff Gordon…. : )

Dennis

Ha ha. True. Maybe this will be Jeff’s year. But, yeah, it’s a horrible format to declare a “Champion”. Champion of what, exactly? Luck? Randomness?

JohnQ

Bingo Dennis, coulda woulda shoulda what? The current Chase is like a boxing match where the combatants are blindfolded, much more dependent on luck than talent. What a mess!

kb

The only way this would work out in the end if the 2,22,4, or 24 win at Homestead..they are the most solid ones left who were consistent through out the year, whether you like them or not.

Steve

LIke someone said previously. It would be poetic justice if Kenseth won the championship without a win. He’s also not as deserving as the 4 you mentioned, so that would be a slap to King Brian as well.

Guess we will see how much Jr moves the needle with attendance and tv ratings these last 4 races too.

Tim S.

Those of us who support other teams should be glad there’s at least one Hendrick Hero in the title hunt. If not, ESPN probably wouldn’t even bother to show the last 4 races. Or they’d put them on the online service, with its 70 households.

Steve

Yeah, instead it will be the Jeff Gordon show for the next 3 races. The way ESPN drools over the Hendrick teams you would have thought someone died yesterday after they interviewed Rick Hendrick. And Jr’s spin at the end, he wasn’t the only one involved, but you wouldn’t have known it the way they focused solely on Jr. Maybe now they will be forced to talk about someone else, but I doubt it. It will be more of Jeffy. Nice if you are a fan of his I guess.

GinaV24

Bill, you give Brian France too much credit that he would actually care about the ratings. So long as the $ from the TV contracts is there, it is irrelevant to him if anyone watches or shows up at the tracks. However I do agree with you that it would send a much louder message if the Jr & Johnson fans stop watching/showing up – maybe someone other than BZF would pay attention to that.

I’d have been a really frustrated person if Kahne had made it into the next round over Gordon considering that the 5 team has underperformed all year. I hate the crapshoot feeling of this format.

The Old Guy

Junior just lost his last chance. The only crew chief with whom he has been able to communicate and get results, is gone at the end of this season. You can’t replace that chemistry.

Moparjeff

Saying “Kahne has not shown much speed in the last 7 races” is just stupid. He was fast at Dover and Kansas, and other places too, but green flag stops combined with ill-timed cautions led to poor finishes. Analysis might include discussion of Kahne’s crew chief and his contribution to inconsistency and poor finishes. Back in the day, discussion of a crew chief’s contribution to Earnhardt’s poor performance was common place.

Frontstretch used to be the place I went for race analysis. This piece isn’t analysis, it is just words strung together to fill space. I’m not even confident that most of the writers here are even watching the races, much less taking notes. Original thought in these columns are about as rare as snowstorms in hades.

Yet I keep coming back like a dog to vomit. But not anymore. I quit.

Racing Rhino

Coulda been worse. If Kyle hadn’t been wrecked Jeff would now be on the outside looking in. If Kahne had finished seven places ahead, Jeff would be on the outside looking in.

All things considered, Hendrick’s best chance for a championship is still in the chase. Jeff has been consistently faster and more competitive than his three team mates. For that, Rick should be thankful.

Racing Rhino

One more thought. Since Dale, Jimmy and Kahne are no longer in the chase, they are free to help Jeff in his quest.

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