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CUP: Hendrick Motorsports – Is The Thrill Gone?

For almost any other team in racing, the numbers that follow would not be a big deal.

CUP: Hendrick's Ups and Downs

For Hendrick Motorsports, they might be.

Over the past four Sprint Cup races, beginning with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, none of Hendrick’s four drivers has finished in the top five.

It gets worse.

Jeff Gordon's last four races have resulted in finishes of 23rd, sixth, 10th and 27th.

Mark Martin has no top-fives and only one top-10 in the past 10 races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finishes of 23rd, 27th (twice), 26th and 19th in the past five races and has fallen from 13th to 17th in points and almost certainly will miss the Chase.

And what of Jimmie Johnson, Mr. Four Time? Seemingly invincible for so long, Johnson has gone six races in a row with no finish better than 10th.

For a team that has had its way in America’s top auto racing series for several years, Hendrick Motorsports has looked quite ordinary over the past month or so.

A skeptic might note that the team’s dropoff runs roughly parallel with the July naming of Marshall Carlson as Hendrick Motorsports president. This would be ridiculous, of course, because Carlson, 37, has been in charge of day-to-day operations at HMS as executive vice president and general manager since January 2005 and has been a key participant in the team’s wildly spectacular successes.

Carlson chuckles at the coincidence and banishes even the twinkling of a thought that Hendrick might be at the start of a slippery slide from its NASCAR top-dog perch.

“We have been trying some different configurations with our cars,” he said. “Some of them have worked, and some of them haven’t. You can’t just sit in one spot. There’s a big sign on the wall in the 24-48 shop about in a competitive environment to remain the same is to regress.

“Our crew chiefs feel they need to be constantly trying to evolve the technology and looking at new ways to get these cars around the track as fast as possible. Sometimes they are good things; sometimes they’re not as fruitful.”

Carlson said there is no lack of dedication and effort within the Hendrick universe.

“There’s smoke coming out of the buildings up here they’re working so hard,” he said. “Folks are working late nights. They are turning cars around really quick. We’ve had full chassis updates on cars in a day. I’m proud of how our people have responded.

“I think what people forget sometimes is that the 48 team really has a knack for hitting it strong when the Chase starts, but I think it’s fair to say that they haven’t been as solid in this summer as maybe summers before.”

Although the competition currently has noticed the summer swoon at Hendrick, people aren’t standing in line to claim that the king is dead. They’ve seen the evidence of what this team – particularly the Johnson-Chad Knaus axis – can do.

Kevin Harvick has been in front of the Hendrick armada in points much of the season and will go into the Chase with a decent shot at dethroning Johnson.

But…

“To lay claim to that [a change at the top], somebody is going to have to finish it off over the next 13 weeks,” Harvick said. “Obviously, we’ve run well, but you have to finish the deal. Until somebody does that, the 48 car is the one that has made it happen over the last four years.”

Shane Wilson, crew chief for Clint Bowyer, said he isn’t ready to re-evaluate the Hendrick organization’s status until he sees their teams operate in the pressure of the Chase.

“We have to see how they do in the last 10 races,” he said. “They could be trying some stuff and searching around a little bit. They’re definitely not as dominant as they were with the winged car at the end of the time we ran it. They seem like they’ve lost a little since we put the spoiler on – either that or some people have caught up.

“But I’m not going to underestimate that group. They’ve always been very good. They seem to catch up faster than some of the rest of us. I’m not going to underestimate them until we’re in the Chase and we actually beat them when it really counts.”

Jeff Burton, who’ll be in the group wrestling Johnson for Chase supremacy in a few weeks, said no one can claim that the king is dead.

“This is a tough sport,” he said. “There are times that people do better than others. That’s how it’s always been. That’s how it always will be. Until we go out and win the kind of championships that Hendrick has won over the past decade, there isn’t a changing of the guard.

“There might be for a race or a season, but what we’ve got to do is find a way to supplant them for a decade because that’s what they’ve done. For us to be where we want to be, that’s what we’ve got to do. And it’s a hard order. We feel like we have the equipment and people and hardware. It’s time to do it.”

Burton said part of the problem at Hendrick Motorsports is that it’s so tough to continue to meet the organization’s standards.

“The last couple of months I’ve noticed that the 48 hasn’t been as strong late in the race as earlier in the race,” he said. “There have been several races where they’ve fallen back, and that’s just not something you’re accustomed to seeing.

“It’s not because they got dumb overnight. It’s not because Jimmie forgot how to drive overnight. They’re just a little bit off. Their standard is really high. Living up to that is very difficult. That’s what they have to do because that’s who they are. But it’s going to be hard to live up to that. They set the bar. They set it high.

“Everybody is trying to be the team that can beat them. We have them to compare to. We know what we have to do to go beat them. And they’re trying to improve on themselves while everybody else is using them as a bull’s-eye.”

The overall task at Hendrick is made more difficult by the fact that so much is expected from so many. Anything less than a championship will be considered a sort of decline for Johnson. Gordon has four championships and continues the search for a fifth. Martin ran so well last year that a repeat this year was considered likely. And Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver despite continuing competition difficulties, undergoes the equivalent of a final exam every week.

It is exceptionally difficult to have four teams running at high levels at all times, and the fact that much effort has been expended on trying to repair Earnhardt’s sagging season probably has had negative impact elsewhere.

Carlson said the effort to return Earnhardt to the winner’s circle is moving forward and that he doesn’t expect major changes within the team for next season.

“We really do anticipate that that team will stay intact,” he said. “We just had a meeting with all the crew chiefs and drivers, and they were all talking about performance and how to keep the ball moving forward. Dale is incredibly engaged. He has a ton of confidence in Lance [crew chief Lance McGrew]. They have good communication.

“I feel like we have the right people in play. We have to keep evolving the technology.”

There could be solutions for the Hendrick mini-drought this weekend at Bristol. All four Hendrick drivers have won at the half-mile, and Gordon is tied with Kurt Busch for most wins (five) by an active driver at BMS.

If not this week, then probably soon.

“When it’s time to do the deal and the pay window opens up, they get paid,” Burton crew chief Todd Berrier said of the 48 team. “You never can count them out. Like it or not, the 48 will be there when it’s all said and done.”

CUP: Hendrick's Ups and Downs

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.