Hendrick Motorsports still has a mountain to climb

Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Madagascar Chevrolet, Chad Knaus celebrates in Victory Lane after they won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 3, 2012 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)
Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Madagascar Chevrolet, Chad Knaus celebrates in Victory Lane after they won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series FedEx 400 benefiting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway on June 3, 2012 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images)

DOVER, Del. — With good reason, Hendrick Motorsports — and Jimmie Johnson in particular — will be the talk of the town as NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series heads for Pocono for two days of testing and a race weekend.

Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon had the two fastest cars in Sunday’s FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway. Johnson won going away, having led 289 of 400 laps, because Gordon had to make an unscheduled pit stop on Lap 250 to tighten a loose wheel.

But, undeniably, the Hendrick cars were the class of the field. Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran fourth on a track that hasn’t been kind to him in the past, and Kasey Kahne was ninth, posting his seventh straight top-10. Even with his problem with the wheel, Gordon finished 13th.

The last four weeks have been all Hendrick. Johnson won at Darlington on May 12 and followed that with a victory in the May 19 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Kahne picked up his first victory in a Hendrick car in the May 27 Coca-Cola 600, and Johnson trashed the rest of the field Sunday at Dover.

Before the season started, team owner Rick Hendrick said he expected all four of his drivers to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. After qualifying second to Mark Martin on Friday, Johnson recalled that goal.

“We got Kasey in Victory Lane (at Charlotte), which was awesome,” Johnson said. “Junior’s been knocking on the door, and we’ve got to get that No. 24 (Gordon) higher up in points. We don’t want to let the boss down. We want to get all four in the Chase.”

Now for the bucket of cold water. As strong has the Hendrick cars have been in the last month, it’s a stretch to think all four drivers will qualify for NASCAR’s playoff. In fact, it’s more likely at this point that Roush Fenway Racing will place three cars in the Chase than that Hendrick will place three cars in the Chase, much less four.

RFR drivers Greg Biffle are 1-2 in the Cup standings, one point apart, and each has one victory. They are locks to make the Chase. At no point since the Chase format was introduced in 2004 has either of the top two drivers after 13 of 26 races failed to qualify.

Carl Edwards, the third Roush driver, has been hovering around the Chase bubble. He’s currently 12th in the standings but only 15 points behind Clint Bowyer in 10th and 16 behind Kyle Busch in ninth. Edwards was running fifth Sunday when his right-front tire blew on Lap 164, and his No. 99 Ford rocketed into the Turn 2 wall.

Edwards lost two spots in the standings after his 26th-place finish, but he’s only a few consistent finishes away from regaining a top-10 position.

In third place, 10 points behind Biffle, Earnhardt also should be a shoo-in for the Chase, but Earnhardt doesn’t have a victory, and anyone in the top 10 without a win is vulnerable. Nor does Earnhardt have the same history on his side that Biffle and Kenseth do. In 2005, Elliott Sadler was third in the standings after 13 races and failed to make the Chase.

Nevertheless, Earnhardt is likely to qualify. Kahne’s status is much more nebulous. With his recent strong runs, the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has overcome an average finish of 28.5 in the first six races to climb to 14th in the standings. Kahne is 40 points out of 10th place, the last guaranteed Chase position.

But Kahne has two avenues to the Chase, either by vaulting into the top 10 or by qualifying for one of the two wild-card spots that go to the two drivers in positions 11 through 20 with the highest number of victories.

To grab a wild-card spot, Kahne in all likelihood will need another win. Brad Keselowski, currently 11th in the standings, already has two. And Tony Stewart, whose cars have been running like dump trucks of late, is eighth, only seven points to the good over Keselowski and 17 over Edwards.

Stewart also has two victories, and if he drops out of the top 10, he has a leg up on a wild-card berth.

Kahne’s odds nevertheless are reasonable. He has one victory each at the next three tracks on the Cup schedule — Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma — and the accompanying confidence that he can sustain the momentum built over the last seven races.

Gordon is another matter entirely. As a Chase hopeful, he’s a long shot at best, despite the speed he’s shown this year. Gordon is 21st in the standings, 94 points behind Bowyer in 10th. Regaining the top 10 is a pipe dream for the four-time champion.

Securing a wild-card spot will be almost as difficult. Gordon will need at least two wins, probably three to trump other winning drivers ahead of him in the standings. Another victory for Kahne or Ryan Newman, who have one each, would lengthen the odds against Gordon.

With his 13th-place finish Sunday, Gordon gained one position in the standings, but he also lost ground to four drivers ahead of him in the 11-20 group: Marcos Ambrose, Kahne, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola.

We’re halfway to the Chase — 13 races in, 13 to go. To make the Chase, Gordon and Kahne together will have to win a significant percentage of the next 13. Figuring the speedy Johnson for a couple of victories, and counting road-course ace Ambrose as the favorite at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for the Hendrick boys on the outside of the fence.

Four drivers in the Chase?

Maybe next year.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for Examiner.com and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.