NASCAR: Hendrick drivers look for cure to slump
By Mike Mulhern
It is one of the NASCAR season’s biggest mysteries: What is going on ó rather, going wrong ó at Rick Hendrick’s shops?
Hendrick is one of the most successful NASCAR team owners ever, the Chevrolet kingpin, the man whose top two drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, blew everyone away down the stretch last fall to win another NASCAR Cup title.
This year has been week after week of zeroes. There was a win by Johnson at Phoenix, but that was followed by bad runs almost everywhere else, and there wasn’t much to show for Sunday at Dover ó Gordon salvaged a fifth, two spots ahead of Johnson, after a big crash wiped out a number of top drivers.
In fact, Johnson’s seventh was his best finish since Phoenix, and it followed 13ths at Talladega and Darlington, a 30th at Richmond, and a 39th at Charlotte.
Johnson has only five top-10 finishes in the year’s first 13 races, a mediocre spring for him. It is surprising that Johnson sits seventh in the Sprint Cup standings, considering he’s averaging 15th-place finishes.
Will things be much different for the Hendrick guys this week at Pocono?
But first there’s Eldora.
Tony Stewart turns promoter for Wednesday’s dirt-track sprints at his Ohio track, with an all-star cast of Cup drivers, including Gordon and Johnson. It’s a made-for-TV (HBO pay-per-view) charity race that was a novelty in its first running a couple of years ago but has now become a happening. Cup drivers once borrowed cars for the play night; now they have cars specially built for them.
“The first time you go there, you just experience it,” Johnson said. “You just learn how to drive the car, and you’re not too concerned about where you’re going to run. But once you get the bug, after racing a little bit, you want to come back the next year and be competitive.”
This will be Johnson’s first Eldora run, and he’ll be in a car owned by Clint Bowyer.
Among the drivers at Eldora: Stewart, Johnson, Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, J.J. Yeley, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Bill Elliott, Dave Blaney, David Reutimann, Robby Gordon, Aric Almirola, Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, Ray Evernham, Red Farmer, Ken Schrader and Kenny Wallace.
With a cast like that, in 2,300-pound cars carrying 800-horsepower engines around a half-mile of clay, maybe the 30-lap feature and all the pre-race and post-race hoopla will be worth the $25 that HBO is charging. Johnson said he’s going to take it as a night of fun.
And then on to Pocono, where the Hendrick operation will again try to end its swoon.
Hendrick spent some two years testing NASCAR’s new car, blew its rivals away in the first five races last season, a season in which all four Hendrick teams won, and Hendrick himself was in Victory Lane for half the 36 races.
And all of a sudden these guys are struggling? Maybe they’re just sandbagging.
Unless NASCAR provides bigger incentives for victories and leading laps, why push it that much during the regular season?
Johnson says he’s not sandbagging.
“I wish we were,” he said with a laugh. “But we don’t have the patience to hold anything back. We’re always set on kill. We’d love to start the season rock-solid, run the full season strong, without faltering, but these seasons are long and tough.
“We certainly end up rising to the occasion at the end of the year. The last few years have been that way for us. We think the end of this year things will come together for usó more than we might have strategically planned.
“Last weekend we didn’t have the finish we wanted; we practiced really well and qualified well, just missed a little something in the race.
“But we’re getting closer.”