For the egalitarian race fans among us, the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season got off to as close to a perfect start as possible, with seven different winners and five different winning teams in the first seven races.
Back then it seemed as if NASCAR’s bold new overhaul to the Chase for the Sprint Cup might actually result in all 16 Chase slots being filled by 16 different race winners. For a brief instant, right-thinking people even mulled the possibility of there being more than 16 different race winners in the 26-race Sprint Cup regular season.
And then reality set in.
Over the last eight races, there have been only three new winners — Denny Hamlin at Talladega, Jeff Gordon at Kansas and Jimmie Johnson at Charlotte. And after Johnson’s victory at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports has now won five races in a row, including three of four by Johnson, the six-time series champion.
If you listened to some of the drivers’ comments after Sunday’s race — and much of the chatter on social media — it’s easy to get the impression that the Hendrick armada might be so far ahead of everyone else right now that no one will be able to catch them this year.
Obviously, only time will tell whether or not that proves to be the case.
But recent history suggests that there’s still an awful lot that is likely to change between now and the end of the year.
Roush Fenway Racing ended 2008 by winning three of the final four Sprint Cup races of the season and then went out and won the first two races of 2009, making for five wins in six races. Yet over the final 34 races of 2009, the team won only won one more race. And Matt Kenseth, the winner of the first two races of the ’09 season, didn’t even make the Chase that year.
During the 2010 season, Joe Gibbs Racing won seven of 10 races in a stretch that extended from the spring Martinsville race to the first Michigan race. Over the final 21 races of the season, the team would only win four more times.
In 2011, Tony Stewart was winless in NASCAR’s regular season, when he had just three top-five finishes in 26 starts. He then proceeded to win five of the 10 Chase races to capture his third Sprint Cup championship.
Two years ago, Hendrick Motorsports won five of eight races between the first Dover race and the second Pocono, with all four Hendrick drivers finding victory lane. But it was Brad Keselowski who took the 2012 championship with Clint Bowyer second.
Last year, JGR won four of six from Las Vegas to Kansas early in the season, then won five of seven from Watkins Glen to New Hampshire, with Kenseth winning each of the first two Chase races. But he didn’t win the championship.
And even earlier this year, Hendrick went nine races without winning before Jeff Gordon won in Kansas, kicking off the team’s streak of victories. But while Hendrick and Johnson are unquestionable red-hot right now, what happens in May and June usually doesn’t mean a whole lot come championship time.
Teams go on hot and cold streaks all the time in NASCAR. Rarely do those streaks, especially the hot ones, last for an extended period of time.
That’s the good news for the competition.
The bad news is that Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 Hendrick team are pushing to get even better.
"The expectation is for us to go out there and perform on a weekly basis as the best team out there, and that’s my expectation, and it’s the expectation of all the fans and especially all you media guys because if we falter for two weeks we’re washed up and we’re all getting fired and everything is going crazy," Knaus told reporters at Michigan after Sunday’s victory. "So if we don’t do that, that’s the only way to keep you guys quiet.
"But it’s been a great year, and we started off a little bit slow," said Knaus. "We said coming into it that we thought it was going to be May time before we were able to hit our stride, and I think that May showed up and we started to run a little bit better, and I hope that we can continue to improve."