NASCAR

Hendrick Motorsports: Four Chasers?

(L-R) Team owner Rick Hendrick talks with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Kasey Kahne.
(L-R) Team owner Rick Hendrick talks with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne.
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Larry McReynolds

Larry McReynolds has more than 30 years of NASCAR experience as a mechanic, Daytona 500-winning crew chief and broadcaster. He earned 23 Sprint Cup wins as a crew chief, including two victories in the prestigious Daytona 500, as well as a pair of non-points victories in the annual all-star race. Follow him on Twitter.

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I know everyone is looking at Hendrick Motorsports right now and specifically the No. 48 car wondering if they should be worried with the Chase just around the corner. Now sure, there is a lot to be said about positive momentum going into the Chase. With that said, I think we have to examine a little deeper to see a true picture of the No. 48 car.

Let’s take a look at their last three bumps in the road. The only one where they were just having an okay night and not really running that well was Bristol. Jimmie was good at Michigan and blew up. I knew Jimmie was going to be good at Atlanta last Sunday night.

I watched that No. 48 in practice at Atlanta. He was fastest in practice. Jimmie had both the fastest five-lap and 15-lap average in practice. It was clear that he once again had a fast race car which is normal for that team but unfortunately Jimmie got caught up in that restart wreck. So my point is there is a little more to this than just saying they aren’t running well right now.

I know there has to be disappointment in the No. 24 camp following Atlanta. We all know Jeff Gordon is scratching and clawing trying to get himself into the Chase. He still doesn’t have a win this season. In Atlanta he certainly looked like he had a car that could contend.

For whatever reason, they couldn’t keep up on the adjustments the car needed. They actually went the wrong way on adjustments a couple times. Now I realize they did come back to finish sixth and he is 11th in points, but they desperately need a win and Atlanta was one that possibly slipped through their fingers.

Unfortunately being 11th in points doesn’t even qualify him for the Wild Card spots in the Chase field because he still hasn’t won this year. There’s really only two things he can do at Richmond. He really needs to win the race, but short of that, he needs to beat Kurt Busch in the No. 78 car by a fair amount. That would get Jeff into the Top 10 in points and an automatic spot in the Chase.

As for the No. 88 car, well Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just okay at Atlanta. He hung around the Top 10 all night long. When it was all said and done he ended up with a Top 10 finish. He’s another one that doesn’t have a win this season but he should make the Chase because he is 37 points ahead of his teammate Jeff Gordon with only Richmond left. The question then becomes can the No. 88 find something that will help them contend for the title. Consistent finishes will not win the championship.

The fourth member of Hendrick Motorsports is naturally Kasey Kahne and with his two wins he is sitting in the first Wild Card spot. So right now the Hendrick camp knows they have three cars in the Chase with the only question mark being the No. 24 car. You can figure that the No.48, No. 88 and the No. 5 will simply be looking for a great run Saturday night and end the regular season on a high note. The No. 24 car however is on a completely different agenda and that’s a big storyline everyone will be following.

There’s another group that also has to be concerned and that’s the entire Toyota camp. Just when you thought you could close the book on their engines woes, Atlanta reminds them they still have work to do. It is possible that it looks worse coming out of Atlanta than it really is.

I believe the deal with Brian Vickers and the No. 55 car on Friday before they even hit the track was a freak deal with something coming off the crankshaft or something like that. I don’t think it is anything that has happened to them. I honestly think the failure of the No. 11 car, based on where they are with their season, is actually more of a scenario of trying things for 2014. It’s one of those cases where the No. 11 has nothing to lose, so why not test a combination now.

The biggest hit Toyota took however was in the No. 15 car. Clint Bowyer was leading the race when his power plant went south and that’s a clear signal to me that Toyota motor folks still have work to do.

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They currently have four drivers in the Chase – Clint, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch are clearly locked in. Martin Truex Jr currently is in but how Richmond goes for him will determine whether he is truly in or out. So Toyota is in somewhat of a box. Now’s not the time to be backing the power down. They simply can’t do that. If you back the power off you aren’t going to win the championship. Obviously the flip side to that is if you don’t fix the durability issue, then you aren’t going to win either.

So there is a lot on the line Saturday night at Richmond. Kasey Kahne heading to the garage at Atlanta Sunday night was the last thing that both Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman ever wanted to see. It’s a clear-cut example of how extremely tight everything is right now.

Kasey has two wins and is now outside the Top 10, so that puts him in one of the two Wild Card spots. You have to feel for Ryan. He had one of the Wild-Card spots when he started the race at Atlanta. He led a lap in the race, got those bonus points plus finished in the Top 5. Ryan did all that yet still fell out of the Wild-Card spot he was holding. That’s just another clear-cut example to me that this 2013 regular season and setting of the 2013 Chase field is going to go right down to the wire Saturday night under the lights here in Richmond.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr.

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