Owner: Rick Hendrick (199 career wins, 10 career championships).
Drivers: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne (finished seventh, eighth, sixth and 14th with Red Bull Racing, respectively, in 2011).
Crew Chiefs: Steve Letarte (Earnhardt Jr.), Alan Gustafson (Gordon), Chad Knaus (Johnson), Kenny Francis (Kahne).
Key offseason changes: The biggest change for this team is the addition of Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis. Kahne spent the 2011 season in a one-year deal with Red Bull Racing after signing with Hendrick for the 2012 season. He’ll take over the No. 5 vacated by Mark Martin, who has cut to a part-time schedule.
Overview: This group started the season talking tough, and it shows no signs of backing off the hot pace of recent years. With team owner Hendrick geared up for a season in which anything less than four drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup and ownership of the season title will be, as he deemed it, disappointing, one wonders just how strong this team will be.
Johnson’s five-year stranglehold on the title ended in 2011, and the team seems to have not only gained an added notch in its desire to once more claim the championship but has studied itself and worked to fill in weak spots. Gordon enjoyed renewed success in 2011 and, except for a couple of ill-timed setbacks, he could have been in the heat of the battle to season’s end. And Earnhardt enjoyed a renewed level of performance last season, as well.
Now the trio is bolstered by the addition of talented Kahne and crew chief Francis.
While the addition of Kahne will help the team continue to increase its competitiveness across the board and build for the future, newcomer Francis could have the greater impact. The crew chief has long been a force in the sport, and Hendrick drivers spent the offseason discussing the benefits his innovation and insight can bring to the group.
So what does 2012 offer? A quick glance at Hendrick shows this team could be even more formidable than in the past. The crew chief-driver realignment of a year ago has more time to jell, and these men have enjoyed additional time to get to know one another and learn to speak each other’s language more clearly. That means the radio communication for Gordon and Earnhardt’s groups will be more astute with less time spent on perceiving how much of a change is needed for each driver; now, the crew chiefs understand just what each means when he says the car is behaving in a particular manner.
Johnson and crew chief Knaus, who notably took time off in the offseason, seem refreshed and renewed. They don’t appear to have spent the down time obsessing over what might have been in 2011 but, rather, on isolating anything that was an issue in the past and revamping their approach in some ways. After all, there is a difference in terms of how one reacts to defending a title and simply trying to win one — and that should show, and benefit, the team’s approach this season. Kahne, meanwhile, has a real chance to shine now. A perennial contender to break into NASCAR’s Chase, he now has the equipment, the teammates — and the continued presence of Francis — to boost him into a true title contender.
Prediction: There is a lot of opportunity for a title under Hendrick’s roof. Could this year’s championship turn into an intramural showdown?
Look for Johnson to return to top form and Gordon to continue the success of 2011. Gordon and Alan Gustafson have found their rhythm and should be watched closely. If this team gets off to a fast start and on a roll, then watch out.
Kahne also bears scrutiny. The soft-spoken Kahne-Francis tandem should return to Victory Lane once more this season and put the pressure on those accustomed to snaring a Chase spot year to year.
And, finally, Earnhardt tries to once more move into the top five, and a title-contending role, in the championship run. Can he do it? Absolutely. No one in this arsenal should be overlooked.