Sunday, June 3, 2012

Hendrick Motorsports: Reloaded and dominant once again

The NASCAR world had a few months there where Hendrick Motorsports wasn't the dominating team in the sport.

Hope all the other teams enjoyed the moment while they had it.

With Kasey Kahne's statement win on Sunday night in Charlotte, Hendrick Motorsports is, once again, a nigh-unstoppable force in NASCAR.

Consider some stats: A third of the way through the season, Hendrick drivers have two wins, 13 top-5s, 26 top-10s and three poles. Joe Gibbs Racing is close, with three wins, 11 top-5s and 17 top 10s, but Richard Childress has managed no better than two top-5 finishes. Roush-Fenway has two wins, 15 top-5s and 24 top-10s, with more drivers in the Chase mix, but Hendrick boasts an unbeatable pedigree with the promise of more. In turn:

? Jimmie Johnson has rebounded from an early-season penalty issue and a second-lap crash on the Daytona 500 to post a powerful run: five top-5s and eight top-10 finishes. Johnson's win at Darlington marked Hendrick's 200th as an owner, and Johnson followed that up with an All-Star victory.

? Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains winless for going on four years, yes. But no driver in NASCAR has been more consistent than Junior; his 9 top-10 finishes lead the sport. And he's got a win of sorts in the All-Star transfer race. (Fans of the 88 will take victory where they can get it.)

? After an ugly start that saw him ranked 31st after six races, no driver in NASCAR has been hotter than Kasey Kahne. His victory caps a run of six straight finishes of no worse than 8th, and he now sits in 15th place, just 42 points out of 10th and the Chase.

? Jeff Gordon has been the uncharacteristic anchor of the team, as much a victim of bad circumstance as anything, and yet he still has three top-10 finishes. He'll need to win his way into the Chase, but Gordon's only a year removed from what appeared to be a legitimate championship run.

Kahne's win in the Coca-Cola 600 is a metaphor for the entire season for the Hendrick team. With Roush-Fenway's Greg Biffle dominant early, leading 204 laps, it appeared there was little the Hendrick team could do other than get within sight of Biffle's rear deck lid. But late in the race, Kahne surged, taking over the lead for good with about 40 laps remaining. Nothing could stop him except for a caution flag, and that didn't make an appearance.

"It feels good to get a win for Hendrick Motorsports," Kahne said afterward. "It's something I've been looking forward to, for a year and a half, to drive for Hendrick Motorsports, to be teammates with Jimmie, Dale and Jeff. To put it all together tonight and get the win, it feels good."

Momentary high aside, down the line Kahne knows he's got plenty of work to do to make the Chase. He's got one win in his pocket; another and a couple more notches up the rankings ladder ought to get him in ... that is, if he doesn't race his way in outright. "For the last six weeks, we've moved up in the points each week," he said. "We've been going in the right direction, doing things right," Kahne said. "I feel like if we keep doing what we're doing, hitting on things like we have been, to me Hendrick Motorsports has been as strong as anyone since the start of this year."

"[Kasey] and Jeff both have had just rotten luck," team owner Rick Hendrick added. "I don't think I've blown a motor at Martinsville in 20 years. He was sitting on the pole, running second, and we lost the motor ... I've been doing this long enough to know that if you have speed, if you can run up front, you're going to win races. If you're running 20th, you stretch gas mileage, you end up with a couple of 10th?place finishes, you're not going to win running like that."

The wins have begun for the Hendrick crew in 2012. It's getting serious now.

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