The team that has been in the headlines of late has most certainly been Joe Gibbs Racing, especially considering that Kyle Busch has won every national touring series race over the past two weekends. Every discussion of the favorites for next week includes the JGR drivers and every race seems to include at least one of their four drivers dominating and usually winning the race.
There was a time when that team was Hendrick Motorsports, and you can make the argument that they still should be. JGR has now won three races in the Sprint Cup series this season (two with Busch and Denny Hamlin’s Daytona 500 victory), while HMS has two with Jimmie Johnson.
Still, while JGR seems to have the upper hand, HMS doesn’t seem far behind, and Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway was no exception.
Though none of its four drivers – Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott – actually won the race, they all finished eighth or better. It’s the first time all four cars have finished inside the top 10 this season, and three of those four drivers finished in the top five. It was a good night for team HMS, even though JGR ultimately prevailed as the winner.
Compared to JGR, though, HMS is still a bit behind. JGR has 12 top fives to HMS’s eight and 16 top 10s versus 15. Those numbers aren’t staggeringly different, but JGR is still leading in all of those categories.
At the same time, the fact that HMS is that close is very impressive. While all four of JGR’s cars are strong and competitive each week (even Matt Kenseth, who has suffered a spell of bad luck as of late), HMS has a rookie in Elliott and a virtual weak link in Kahne. That’s not to say Kahne is a bad driver, but even Kahne fans will admit the No. 5 team has not been performing at a level on par with their teammates for the last couple of seasons.
Elliott hasn’t been racing like a rookie, however, and Kahne has been able to earn a couple of top 10s this year, so it certainly looks like the HMS of old is making a comeback this season – assuming they were ever even gone in the first place,
“I think the company as a whole is pushing real hard to improve, and there’s an impression within the company that we need to grind a little bit and gain — make some gains going forward into the middle of the season here,” Earnhardt said after finishing second. “But I was real encouraged with my car tonight.”
Perhaps this team never really “disappeared” in the first place. It’s possible that the competition just caught up. Even with the retirement of Jeff Gordon from the No. 24 car last season, Elliott and his team have been able to notch a few top 10s and a top five last weekend in Texas.
“I definitely think it was a solid night,” said Elliott, who finished fifth as the highest finishing rookie. “It’s not a perfect night. We would love to turn all four cars in the top 10 to all four cars in the top 5, and I think that’s a goal we have to shoot for.
“I think we have a team and people that are capable of doing that, so we want to keep working at it. I think as I said before, we’re — for us, we’re excited to run in the top 5. We’re also not content, and we want to be contenders, and running fifth isn’t a contender. You’ve got to be up a little higher. That’s our goal, and we’ll keep working at it.”
Kahne’s eighth-place finish may have been the worst of his four teammates, but it was his best run of the season after seven races.
“We just battled,” said Kahne. “We got behind, got a lap down early again and we just had to fight back. The team did an awesome job to do that. We had great calls to get the car tightened up; I was so loose that I couldn’t go fast enough for a little while there. There at the end we were actually pretty competitive the last probably 250 laps, like really competitive.
“We were down a lap a lot of it, but we were really competitive. Once we got back up there I think we were definitely a top 10 car and we finished eighth. It was the best we have done in a long time. It feels nice.”
Johnson’s fourth-place run was impressive as well, given that early contact with Busch on pit road at one point looked like it was going to end an otherwise promising night at a track Johnson has dominated in the past.
“Chad [Knaus, crew chief] did a nice job of selling on the radio,” said Johnson. “He said on the radio it wasn’t too bad. Looking at it, it’s really bad. So I’m really glad we finished as well as we did.”
That’s not to say that the drivers aren’t inherently aware of who their stiffest competition is right now, and who they will likely have to contend with for the rest of the season.
“Yeah, two Cup races in a row,” Earnhardt said post-race, referencing Busch. “He wins a lot of XFINITY races. If he’s in an XFINITY race he’s got about a 90 percent chance of winning that. But he’s won — in ’08 he won 10 races. The guy is good. He’s got a great team behind him, and they put themselves in position at the end to challenge Martin, and Martin couldn’t hold him off.”
“I ain’t surprised by any means, and we’ve just got to work hard to try to get that opportunity,” he continued. “We had a pretty good car, and I think better than Kyle most of the night, but in the end he had that track position that we didn’t have.”
It’s hard to think of HMS as being underrated or overshadowed, but it feels like that’s exactly what has happened this season. Maybe that’s justified, considering their statistics versus that of the competition. Even if they are a bit behind, though, it’s not by much, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if they were back on top as the season goes into summer and, eventually the fall … which means the Chase.
If that’s the case, you have to think Earnhardt and Johnson are the two likeliest candidates of the HMS camp to make that happen. Both stories would be huge for the sport. For Johnson , a championship this season would tie him with the most ever Sprint Cup Series titles (7) with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. For Earnhardt, it would be his first Cup Series championship after a long career and one that his large and loyal fan base has been waiting for.
But at this point, it’s obvious they will have to go through the JGR camp first.