NASCAR centerpiece: Hiccups at Hendrick?

Rob Sneddon

A few weeks ago, when Hendrick Motorsports announced that it had signed Kasey Kahne, the consensus was that the rich had gotten richer and the Hendrick reign would continue unabated. Now, amid a five-race winless streak that has included a couple of public squabbles between Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, conventional wisdom holds that Hendrick has finally started to come back to the pack. So which is the more accurate view? Here’s a driver-by-driver breakdown of where NASCAR’s toughest team stands at the 10-race mark of 2010.

Jimmie Johnson

The hiccup: Since picking up his first career win at Bristol in March, which gave him three wins in the first five races of 2010, Johnson has been uncharacteristically erratic. He crashed at the finish line at Richmond, the third straight race where he’s had significant contact, and has coughed up the 108-point lead he held after Texas.

The cure: A clean top-five finish. There’s no need for the 48 team to panic. Only Talladega, where Johnson made two critical errors in traffic and finished 31st after crashing out, has been an unmitigated disaster. He’s finished in the top 10 in every other race since Bristol. The well-publicized spats with Gordon have made this stretch seem worse than it’s been.

Jeff Gordon

The hiccup: He can’t close the deal. Four times this year Gordon has had the lead in the waning laps and failed to win. The most recent instance occurred last Saturday night at Richmond, where Gordon lost the lead to eventual winner Kyle Busch on the last restart, with five laps to go.

The cure: None is necessary. “If we keep running like this, I think the wins will come,” Gordon said after his runner-up finish at Richmond. And even if they don’t, Gordon will still be a title contender because NASCAR’s championship format rewards consistency and versatility – both of which the 24 has displayed this season. “I think we’re way ahead of where we were last year,” Gordon said. “Last year I didn’t think we were near dominant enough, leading enough laps, or diverse enough to run good at a lot of different types of tracks to compete for the championship. I feel like that’s the difference for us this year.”

Mark Martin

The hiccup: It’s been feast or famine for the 5 car this year. In 10 races Martin has had four top-five finishes – and four finishes of 21st or worse.

The cure: If Martin can keep his legendary pessimism in check, he should be fine. A 36-race season will have plenty of ups and downs; if anyone ought to know that, Martin, at age 51, should.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The hiccup: He’s finished worse than he’s started seven times in 10 races. That’s as good an indication as any that he’s not getting the most out of his equipment.

The cure: He needs to get out of his own way. Yes, it’s a long season and every driver has his share of bad luck. But a driver also makes his own luck, both good and bad, and Junior made some bad luck by rubbing fenders with Paul Menard and Bobby Labonte at Richmond. The result was a cut tire, a green-flag pit stop, three lost laps, and a 32nd-place finish. A handful of races like that can keep a driver out of the Chase.

NEXT RACE Showtime Southern 500, Darlington Raceway

THE LOWDOWN Is the rest of the Sprint Cup field really catching up to Hendrick Motorsports? This race should provide the answer. Only five active, full-time drivers have multiple Cup wins at Darlington – and three of them are with Hendrick: Jeff Gordon (seven), Jimmie Johnson (two) and Mark Martin (two). Martin, Johnson and Gordon finished first, second and fifth, respectively, in last year’s Southern 500, a grueling endurance test marred by a record 17 caution flags.

PAST WINNERS

2009 Mark Martin

2008   Kyle Busch

2007   Jeff Gordon

2006   Greg Biffle

2005   Greg Biffle

ABOUT Darlington

TRACK: Darlington Raceway (Darlington, S.C.), 1.366-mile paved oval

RACE LENGTH: 367 laps, 501.3 miles

FIRST RACE: 1950

SERIES: NASCAR Sprint Cup

Quote of note

“The (Chase) is 10 races as well.” – Kevin Harvick, on being the points leader after 10 races.

Where to watch

Saturday’s pre-race show on Fox starts at 7 p.m. EDT, followed by race coverage at 7:30.

ONE TO WATCH: Kyle Busch

WHY HE MATTERS: Dominated Richmond for first Cup win of 2010.

WHAT HE SAYS: “As far as not being able to win in 21 races – shucks, darn, gee, golly, sorry.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: That 21-race winless streak was his longest since joining Joe Gibbs Racing.

UP TO SPEED

Darlington’s degree of difficulty

As the track “Too Tough to Tame,” Darlington should be a barometer of NASCAR’s best drivers. And, according to the numbers, it is. Just two active drivers have averaged a top-10 finish at Darlington over their careers (minimum of three starts). Just so happens it’s Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who have combined to win half the races so far in 2010 (see chart). At the opposite end of the spectrum is Brian Vickers. In seven career Darlington starts his average finish is 28.6, and he’s never finished in the top 15.

RCR: Less is more

Last year Richard Childress Racing had four Sprint Cup teams. None made the Chase. This year RCR has three Cup teams – and so far all three are on pace for the Chase. Clint Bowyer, driver of the RCR No. 33 Chevrolet, thinks there’s a correlation between the downsizing and the uptick. “The biggest thing in any organization is teamwork,” Bowyer says, “and I feel like moving down to three teams at RCR really forced us to work together as a group. The engineering department stepped up in a big way, engines have stepped up – just everybody at RCR across the board has really stepped up. … I think all three of our teams are going to be in the Chase.”

Milestone

Hubert Westmoreland missed out on a chance at NASCAR history the first time around – but not the second. Westmoreland owned the car that was flagged first in the first-ever race in what is now NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, at Charlotte Speedway on June 19, 1949. But NASCAR founder Bill France disqualified the car, a 1947 Ford driven by Glenn Dunnaway, for illegal alterations to the springs. (Legend has it that those alterations were made when the car was used to haul moonshine.) The next year, Westmoreland was one-third of a partnership that fielded a 1950 Plymouth for driver Johnny Mantz in the first Southern 500 at Darlington. (Bill France, of all people, was one of the other partners.) Although Mantz was the slowest qualifier in the 75-car field, he babied his tires and won by nine laps.

WEEKLY STATS

Average finish at Darlington*

RANK             DRIVER     STARTS         AVG. FINISH

1              Jimmie Johnson         11       6.9

2              Denny Hamlin       4        8.0

3              Martin Truex Jr.         4       11.2

4              Jeff Gordon               29      11.3

5              Jeff Burton              27     11.5

6              Tony Stewart       17       11.9

7              Mark Martin               43       12.0

8              Ryan Newman      11       12.5

9              Greg Biffle           9        14.0

10            Dale Earnhardt Jr.      15     15.1

11            Bobby Labonte          29     15.2

12            Kasey Kahne        7        15.3

13            Carl Edwards        6       15.7

14            Jamie McMurray         9       16.4

15            Kurt Busch                13     17.5

16            Matt Kenseth       16     18.0

17            Elliott Sadler        17       18.6

18            Kevin Harvick       13       20.1

19            Kyle Busch           5       20.4

20            Clint Bowyer        4        21.0

*Active, full-time drivers with at least three starts