Has Hendrick Motorsports fallen from grace?

The Chase of 2011 has not gone the way Jimmie Johnson or the
No. 48 team had hoped. Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
Hendrick Motorsports is the dominating team in NASCAR, but this Chase season they’ve struggled. With three drivers in the Chase, one with four titles and one with five consecutive titles, you’d think they’d be higher in points and in a better position to win an 11th Cup championship for the team.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn’t won a Cup since the start of his career. He hasn’t won a race since 2008, and he’s the only guy in the Chase without a win this season. His consistent top finishes earned him the points to be in this year's Chase.

Jimmy Spencer said on Race Hub last Thursday that he’d like to see Earnhardt Jr. drive with more passion and aggression. Should Earnhardt Jr. stop being nice and start being a competitor? Last May, after the Martinsville loss to Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt Jr. told press that he didn't think he was competitive enough to race hard. Shouldn’t he make himself the car to beat and make passing him harder, even if his car isn’t the best or the fastest on the track? Could the beating and banging he caused in Martinsville be what Earnhardt Jr. needs to do more often to win? Does he "really, truly, genuinely" have respect from other drivers, on the track?

With all that’s happened over the weekend with Kyle Busch deliberately spinning out a competitor, it’s not suggested that any driver drive with the aggression to cause harm to others, but should a driver at least make others feel like they can’t pass him? Isn’t winning races why Rick Hendrick hired him? He has speed, he has top equipment, and he has a strong leader and crew chief in Steve Letarte. At Texas, he finished seventh for the second weekend in a row; it is the first time he's finished in the same spot two weekends in a row in his 433 starts in Cup racing. He’s now seventh in points. He could finish the season with a top-5 finish and that would be something to brag about. However, when can he and Junior Nation brag about a win? Will it always be about being the good guy who races clean without a win?
Credit: Debbie Ross for Skirts and Scuffs
The question is not, “Does Earnhardt Jr. have a love and passion for this sport and does he want to race for a living?” because the answer is, “Yes, he does.” The question is, when will he put himself in a more competitive position? When will he open his own doors to Victory Lane and when will he put aside the excuses? There are thousands of questions surrounding his career, and critics and press have an eye for Earnhardt Jr. like no other driver.

A.J. Allmendinger, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Burton, Mark Martin have not won races in a long time. Allmendinger hasn’t won one since the start of his NASCAR career. Yet, no one questions their motivation or passion as often as they question Earnhardt Jr.

Jeff Gordon hasn’t won a championship since 2004; his fifth Cup title seemed to be realistic at the start of the Chase but heading into Phoenix 8th in points isn’t going to help him. To gain 81 points with two races to go isn’t as easy as it sounds. Last weekend at Texas, Gordon had the fasted HMS car and finished sixth, the highest of the organization's drivers, but he is out of championship contention at this point.

It’s not an embarrassing end to the season. Racing is more unpredictable and complex - it’s not a sport where you can practice every day and use a specific skill for each race track. You can't focus on racing on the inside lane for every track and get the same result. Racing is not like football, where you can go outside and practice a pass everyday until you can throw a 70-yard touchdown. Tracks change with weather, season and the time of day. Gordon did reach a milestone in Atlanta by reaching his 85th career win. Last season, he showed his anger by getting out of his car to fight with Jeff Burton at Texas. His drive to end his losing streak is strong.

Jimmie Johnson, Mr. Five-Time Cup Defender, is in danger. Heading into Phoenix sixth in points means it is realistic for him to make up ground, but  he is not going to win a sixth Sprint Cup championship, even if he does win the next two races. 

There’s been much controversy surrounding Johnson since the start of the Chase. He didn’t finish well at New Hampshire Motor Speedway because of pit road errors. Then, he and crew chief Chad Knaus bickered a bit on the radio and he crashed his car with 17 laps to go at the Bank of America 500, where he had to pull out of the race. A week later, he and teammate Earnhardt Jr. made a bad decision to stay in the back of the pack for most of the Talladega race and tried to move ahead too late; that resulted in a 26th-place finish. A few days later, a fan notified a journalist of comments Knaus made to Johnson caught on Race Buddy audio prior to the Talladega race. It was clear the chatter seemed suspicious: Knaus' request that Johnson crash the car if he won turned heads and created drama for the 48 team. NASCAR has decided that Johnson’s car is now up for careful inspection at the Research and Development Center for the final races of the season.

In Martinsville, he came on strong and was headed for the win until Tony Stewart passed him in last laps. In Texas last weekend, Johnson started out strong again and showed promise of a high finish until he slid into the grass. He finished 14th; he’s now 6th in points.

Johnson has proven that he can put the drama behind him and focus on racing, but the time has come that no matter how strong he is, how hard he races and where he finishes, that his consecutive championship-winning days have come to an end. A good competitor never backs down and never allows himself to lose regardless of how often he’s won; in racing it isn’t about being friends, it’s about fighting for a win and Johnson has done just that. This may not be the year for the sixth Cup, but there's still time win more Cups in the future.

All four HMS boys have a solid history at Phoenix International Raceway; they each have two wins at the track. The newly paved track could be beneficial for the drivers. This is one of Johnson's strongest tracks with 14 top-five finishes and 21 top 10s. Gordon is as strong with three poles, 18 top 10s and 10 top fives. Picking PIR to be Earnhardt's next victory is safe considering he has four top fives and eight top-10 finishes. Although Mark Martin is not in the Chase, he shouldn't be counted out for a win for the team; he could be Hendrick's 200th winner at Phoenix, where Martin has 12 top-five finishes and 19 top 10s.

Last week, Rick Hendrick was involved in a scary plane crash when his private plane wrecked on the tarmac. At first, Hendrick wasn’t badly injured, but when he returned to Charlotte, he was re-admitted to the hospital to be treated for injuries; he suffers from four broken ribs, a broken clavicle and bruising.

The trials and tribulations the Hendrick Motorsports team is facing aren't detrimental to their title as the most elite in the sport, but it sure isn’t helpful when three promising guys are not in contention to win the championship when they do have more to win than to lose. 

Genevieve is a freelance and story writer living in North Carolina where she spends her time exercising, boating on Lake Norman and hanging out with her niece.  You can follow her on Twitter 
Has Hendrick Motorsports fallen from grace? Has Hendrick Motorsports fallen from grace? Reviewed by Unknown on Wednesday, November 09, 2011 Rating: 5