Team owner Rick Hendrick is known for setting ambitious goals – and then reaching most of them, but the one he tossed out last January seemed particularly tough.
His target for the year, Hendrick said, was to put all four of his drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Considering the competition, all the things that can go wrong in a long, 26-race regular season and the difficulty in keeping four teams performing at peak levels, it seemed like a long shot.
But, of course, it happened. When the Chase began Sept. 16 in Chicago, Hendrick colors rode in second (Jimmie Johnson), seventh (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), 11th (Kasey Kahne) and 12th (Jeff Gordon).
The rush on the standings didn’t produce another Hendrick championship, as Johnson finished third, Kahne fourth, Gordon 10th and Earnhardt Jr. 12th, but the concept of one organization claiming one-third of the Chase spots was quite noteworthy.
Could there be a repeat of the four-for-four in a season in which all teams will be wrestling with a new car?
“There are a lot of variables with the new car, things that are completely new,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The sport is going to be revolutionized again with this car. So there are a lot of things that are unknowns.
“But I’m with a great company that does really well under those kind of circumstances when there are unknown variables. We’re really good at figuring those variables out.”
The Hendrick organization has a long list of resources – people and materials – to throw at any problem, and typically responds quicker than most when landscape-changing events – like this year’s new car – arrive.
Still, it will be quite the challenge to repeat last year’s rush on the Chase.
Among the questions to be answered is how Earnhardt Jr. will respond in the new season after he missed two races late last year with a concussion. Gordon won the season finale at Homestead to provide a little momentum boost for the new year, and Johnson no doubt will be fired up by having been denied the championship for two straight years. Kahne’s fourth-place finish in points was his career best.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.