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.
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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