Did You Notice? … The struggles of Hendrick Motorsports this season getting more pronounced? The team’s night at Kentucky Speedway ended with none of HMS’ four cars in serious contention; Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was the best of the bunch in 13th place. For the second straight week, the entire four-car fleet ran outside the top 10, the first time they’ve done so in consecutive races since Charlotte Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in the fall of 2011. None of the drivers — Earnhardt, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne — have even led a lap since Michigan one month ago.
For a team often dubbed the New York Yankees of NASCAR, those numbers are virtually unprecedented. Looking deeper at the season’s midpoint, it’s clear Chevy’s top dog has lost a cylinder compared to rivals at Joe Gibbs Racing (Toyota) and Team Penske (Ford), who have dominated the headlines over the season’s first half.
Only Jimmie Johnson has won for the four-car organization through 18 races, capturing two victories, while everyone else on the team remains shut out. It’s easily the lowest number of trophies collected for the organization at this point in over a decade.
HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS WINS THROUGH MIDSEASON DURING CHASE ERA
Year – Victories (Drivers With At Least One Win)
2004 – 7 Wins (2 Drivers Won – Johnson & Gordon)
2005 – 5 Wins (2)
2006 – 5 Wins (2)*
2007 – 10 Wins (4)*
2008 – 2 Wins (2)*
2009 – 6 Wins (3)*
2010 – 5 Wins (1)*
2011 – 3 Wins (2)
2012 – 4 Wins (3)
2013 – 5 Wins (2)*
2014 – 6 Wins (3)
2015 – 6 Wins (2)
2016 – 2 Wins (1)
* – Won Sprint Cup Series Championship That Year
As you can see, 2016 ties for the lowest win production for the team during the Chase era and in all reality is worse (at least in 2008, the other season with such a low output two different teams at HMS visited Victory Lane). There have been a series of near-misses, of course; Earnhardt has a series-high four runner-up finishes and Elliott, a rookie, ran a career-best second at Michigan International Speedway. But in a Chase format based on winning, HMS is having trouble getting over the hump.
Some will say Johnson, in true No. 48 fashion, is simply experimenting for a new postseason format that’s dogged the team in recent years. Crew chief Chad Knaus and co. have gone 0-for-2 on Final Fours with the six-time series champ; last year produced an embarrassing first-round knockout punch at Dover International Speedway. But some midseason numbers suggest they’re not just testing for later. Johnson has just 228 laps led at this point; that’s on pace for the lowest total (456) in a season for his entire career. Johnson’s average finish of 14.9, if it holds, would be the second lowest for him all-time, while the team remains without a pole for the first time since 2011.
As for the others? Earnhardt, whose unhappiness with his team has been well documented by even the driver himself, has been inconsistent. Still winless, he’s led just 53 laps, on pace for his lowest total since 2011, and has already collected four DNFs. Two of those trips to the garage have been in restrictor plate races, typically the No. 88 team’s bread and butter but an area in which it’s collected a glaring 32.3 average finish over the course of 2016. That would all be water under the bridge if the team had turned just one second-place finish into a victory. Instead, Earnhardt sits 32 points above the cutoff, close enough that a few tough-luck performances late could knock him out in favor of a surging driver like Kyle Larson or even Trevor Bayne.
Earnhardt’s teammate Kahne knows a thing or two about rough luck; it’s those very midsummer DNFs Junior fans worry about that knocked Kahne out of the Chase last year. In 2016, the No. 5 team has actually showed signs of turning the corner at times but has yet to lead a single lap all season. For an HMS outfit equipped with top-level resources, that goose egg stands out as even underdogs like Cole Whitt, Matt DiBenedetto and Regan Smith have found a way to earn at least one bonus point.
Elliott has been the lone bright spot as of late; the rookie has performed better than expected with the only team HMS has ever sent to a Final Four. However, the last three races have dealt the first-year driver his first-ever slump, with three straight finishes outside the top 15. By comparison, he had three runs of 16th or worse during the first 15 races of the 2016 season.
So what does it all mean for HMS? Hard to say, as NASCAR’s new format providing an opportunity for redemption this team might not otherwise have. (Perhaps the fans’ knowledge of all that has made them more casual fans at this stage of the season, a possible explanation for declining ratings? Ah, a topic for another day.) With 16 teams making the postseason there’s margin for error, and at the moment all but Kahne are inside the cut line for HMS. Kahne, sitting within striking distance, would only need a string of a few top-10 finishes to jump back to the right side of the bubble.
In the case of Earnhardt’s group, a No. 88 team that has contended for the title before, all it takes is simply making the Chase for them to get a second chance. Look at the retiring Jeff Gordon as an example; he stumbled his way into the field only to peak during the final 10 races, win at Martinsville Speedway and come tantalizingly close to an upset title bid. Johnson and Elliott, both solidly in the field at this point, could also get it together in fine fashion by the time the postseason hits in September.
It’s true the regular season numbers don’t mean as much as they once did. But it’s hard to ignore how rough it’s been for HMS; it’s been years since it’s been shoved to the fringes of title talk like it has been the past few months.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Greg Biffle has back-to-back top-10 finishes for the first time since August 2014. The No. 16 team also owns a pole (Daytona) and three top-15 starting spots over the last six races for Roush Fenway Racing. Is that enough momentum to win? Debatable; the veteran has led only seven laps all season. But keep in mind last fall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Biffle came home a surprising fourth. In a race where track position is key, it’s possible he and the rest of RFR could pop up in contention this Sunday. This race is co-owner and Boston Red Sox head honcho John Henry’s home base; NESN Fuel is sponsoring Biffle this weekend. For the first time in what seems like forever, there’s hope within the RFR camp they can charge back into NASCAR’s top tier.
- Halfway through the season, Martin Truex, Jr. leads the Cup circuit with 866 laps led. That’s already a career high as he works on inking a long-term deal with Furniture Row Racing. But let’s not forget how many laps this team led all year in 2014 (just one). The turnaround both driver and team made in such a short time together continues to impress.
- Kyle Larson wished for better at Kentucky, but this team has shown the type of consistency needed to contend in the Chase. Kudos to new crew chief Chad Johnston, a man who’s rebuilt his reputation after a difficult few seasons with now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing and running Tony Stewart’s No. 14 team. If the No. 42 can make it in, it’ll be a contender, but the big question is if. 27 points is a deficit Larson can overcome, but the margin for error is incredibly slim.
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