Right now, the struggle is real for Hendrick Motorsports, as the most dominant NASCAR team of this century had another disappointing outing at Bristol Motor Speedway Saturday night.
Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was best in class for the Hendrick squad, finishing fourth in the Irwin Tools Night Race, while Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a respectable ninth. Less impressive finishes were turned in by Kasey Kahne (16th) and Jeff Gordon (20th).
But even those results might look artificially optimistic.
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Among them, the four Hendrick drivers have eight Sprint Cup race victories and have led a whopping 4,865 laps at Bristol in their careers. Saturday night at the high-banked 0.533-mile oval, none of the four led a single lap.
In fact, since Earnhardt won at Daytona International Speedway over the July 4 weekend, there have been seven races. During those seven races, neither Johnson nor Earnhardt nor Kahne has led so much as a one of the 1,682 laps run in those events. Gordon has led a total of five laps. As a group, the four Hendrick drivers are winless with just three top fives in that period.
By comparison, in the seven races since Daytona, the four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have won five races, had 13 top-five finishes and led a whopping 840 laps -- just a single lap short of half the total laps runs then.
Although Joey Logano and his Team Penske Ford came on to win the closing stages at Bristol Saturday night, the JGR Toyotas were once again noticeably faster than the Hendrick Chevrolets.
Earnhardt, who had to use the Lucky Dog free pass twice, said Busch was in a league of his own.
"Kyle (Busch) was flying at the start of the race and lapped all the way up to us and a couple more cars," said Earnhardt after the race. "You just can't get behind early like that when there are so many cars on the lead lap. We never did. Hell we were running 12th getting lapped."
With the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup just four weeks away, the Hendrick squad has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to win a 12th driver championship. With the last off-week of the season at hand before racing resumes at Darlington Raceway in two weeks, you can expect the Hendrick squad will be working overtime to close the gap.
But whether they can remains very much an open question at this point.