Don't count Hendrick out just yet
From the time Jeff Gordon joined NASCAR's top series with a silly mustache and a rainbow car to last year's dominating performance by Jimmie Johnson, this team has been very good, much to the chagrin of many fans. Between Gordon, Johnson and Terry Labonte, Hendrick has taken home seven titles since 1995.
This domination reached a new level in 2007, with the team taking home a full 50 percent of the race victories, led by Johnson's 10 victories, and the championship for the second straight year. Heading into 2008, most NASCAR fans were hoping for something different. They didn't want to see a repeat of 2007, when you knew that at the end of each race, chances are Johnson or Gordon would be on their way to victory. If I know who's going to win, why should I even tune in, many wondered.
Oddly enough, their wishes came true — for a few weeks in 2008, at least. Johnson and Gordon were lagging in the stands for the first month of the season. Part of the reason was cars being torn up on the track, and, in a shocker, Johnson even seemed to have a car that simply wasn't set up right on at least one occasion.
While Hendrick struggled, with the exception of new arrival Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the Toyotas proved they were contenders and teams like Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing took most of the headlines. The legion of anti-Hendrick fans had reason to rejoice.
But last week's race at Martinsville was the first sign that this temporary struggle is nothing to get excited about. All four Hendrick cars (Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt and Casey Mears) had very strong runs at the short track, and were running together in the top 10 for most of the race. As a result, Gordon and Johnson crept back into the top 10 in the standings.
Yes, folks, the Evil Empire is back. And while they will not repeat the dominance of last year -- mainly because the other teams have finally adjusted to the Car of Tomorrow, which Hendrick seemed to have figured out last year -- I would bet that Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt will all visit Victory Lane this year, probably multiple times.
Even if the team's drivers have another slump, the ultimate equalizer comes up in September, and that's called "The Chase". Prior to the implementation of this playoff-type system in 2004, a driver that fell behind early had little to no shot at the title. Now, the slate is wiped clean for the top dozen drivers with 10 races to go. You can be leading the standings by 400 points after Richmond, and the next week at New Hampshire, you're only up by a few points on second place.
And guess who runs great in the Chase seemingly every year . that's right, Jimmie Johnson. So, keep those party hats in the box. While millions of people would hope for Hendrick Motorsports to become an also-ran team that's out of the title hunt, it's not likely to happen anytime soon.
-- Among the breaking news heading into this weekend is that NASCAR veteran Kyle Petty -- sitting 40th in points and fresh off failing to qualify at Martinsville -- will let young driver Chad McCumbee attempt to qualify his No. 45 Dodge at Texas Motor Speedway. As of now, this is not supposed to be a permanent move, but it should be. Petty has been past his prime for a while, and he just can't give up the racing bug. But he should look at this from a business perspective, and realize that the longer he stays in the car just turning laps with almost no chance of doing well, the more he is hurting his family business, Petty Enterprises. Maybe 'The King' can talk some sense into him.
-- A couple young drivers are turning heads early in their careers. Michael Waltrip Racing's Michael McDowell had a strong run last week at Martinsville in his first Cup race ever, staying on the lead lap on the challenging track until a flat tire ruined his day. Also, Aric Almirola, who is sharing the No. 8 DEI ride vacated by Earnhardt with Mark Martin, had a strong 8th-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway a few weeks ago, then qualified 3rd at Martinsville. Keep your eye on these two, as they could be stars of the future.