It's almost winning time and Rick Hendrick, NASCAR's most successful team owner, finds himself in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable place: Behind.
With only Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway left in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular season, Hendrick Motorsports, the organization with more Cup championships than any other, has hit a deep performance slump.
Jimmie Johnson, who has won six of Hendrick's 11 Cup championships, hasn't led a lap since the July 4 weekend at Daytona, eight races ago. Neither has Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the Daytona race.
Although he will almost certainly qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, four-time champion Jeff Gordon has had a dreadful stretch run in the Cup regular season, finishing 17th or worse in five of the last six races.
Kasey Kahne, who needs to win at Richmond to make the Chase, hasn't had a top-10 finish in any race since he was eighth on the Sonoma Raceway road course two-and-a-half months ago.
Considering that Joe Gibbs Racing has won six out of the last eight races, with Team Penske taking the other two, and Kevin Harvick's Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet in the top five most races, Hendrick Motorsports clearly isn't performing at the level where the team owner or his employees want it to be.
But Hendrick said he isn't panicking.
"People catch up, people work hard, rules packages, rules changes," said Hendrick. "Usually we're on top of it. Usually we come out in the front. To think that you can be in this sport every single year and be the dominant guy that wins them all, it isn't going to happen. NASCAR isn't going to let it happen. It's just part of it."
Hendrick, speaking at the groundbreaking of the new Axalta Coating Systems facility on the team's campus in Concord, NC, said being behind motivates him.
"We'll be back," he said. "I don't like the fact that we haven't led laps. ... We've just fumbled the ball more than normal. But the true character of an organization and a team is how you fight back. And I kind of think it's good for you sometimes that you have to step it up a little bit. You find out who's really dedicated. Our guys are really committed and dedicated."
Hendrick said that while his team is behind, it isn't so far behind that drastic changes are needed.
"I don't like to lose. I'm very competitive," said Hendrick. "But you can do two things when you come under adversity: You can throw a tantrum, you can raise hell and you can bust it all up. You can change people, you can fire people. Or if you can see that you're just this much (off) in this area, this much in this area ... we've got to go to work. And they are working. I'm spending more time with them to make sure they know I have their back. Look, it's not broken. It's not a dead player. We're off a little bit."
Whether Hendrick Motorsports wins another title this year or not, there's no question the sport ebbs and flows. In 2013, JGR, this year's clear performance leader, won 12 races. Last year, the team slumped to just two victories, but after a slow start this year has recovered to win 10 races.
If you go back five years to the 2010 season, NASCAR made an early season rules change, replacing the rear wing on the Cup cars with a more traditional blade spoiler. Hendrick won three of the first five races that season; once the rules change took effect, JGR won seven of the next 10 races. At the very end of the season, the title came down to the final race of the season, with Johnson edging JGR's Denny Hamlin at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win his fifth consecutive championship.
With the new Chase format adopted last year, where the top four drivers start the Homestead race tied in points, anything can happen, which is what Hendrick is counting on.
"It ain't over yet," Hendrick told reporters. "So you go ahead and count us out."