Riding high: Hendrick boys primed to keep streak alive at Michigan?
Will Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Michigan International Speedway mark the end of Hendrick Motorsports’ highly publicized winning streak?
If Saturday’s two practices at the fast 2-mile track are any indication, the organization is in prime position to notch a fifth-consecutive victory when the checkered flag waves on the Quicken Loans 400.
Hendrick drivers claimed four of the top seven positions in Saturday’s final "Happy Hour" practice at MIS, with Jeff Gordon (second) leading the Hendrick charge ahead of teammates Jimmie Johnson (fourth), Kasey Kahne (sixth) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (seventh).
In Saturday’s first round of practice, Johnson and Gordon were 1-2 on the speed charts, respectively, followed by Kahne in fifth and Earnhardt Jr. in 14th.
"There is still a lot of speed in the car," said Kahne, the only one of the four Hendrick drivers without a win this season. "I’m looking forward to … working on it and getting prepared for the race on Sunday. It’s a pretty good track and we should run really well here. Our engines and cars are really strong."
Gordon (second), Earnhardt Jr. (third) and Johnson (seventh) all qualified inside the top 10, with Kahne 13th but certainly within striking distance to pick up his first victory of 2014 on Sunday afternoon.
Kevin Harvick, who captured the pole and set a new track record on Friday with a lightning-fast lap of 204.557 mph, figures to be one of the Hendrick boys’ toughest challengers on Sunday. It should be noted, however, that the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is carrying a Hendrick engine through the technical alliance between Hendrick and SHR.
"I think you have to give Hendrick a lot of credit for what they were able to accomplish getting the pole, and having the top three (engines in qualifying)," said Earnhardt Jr., who won this race two years ago in dominant fashion. "I also think that even though we got beat out there by a Stewart-Haas car, the relationship between the two companies is one that benefits both sides. It definitely appears to be pushing both companies to new heights, taking something from a conversation I had with (crew chief) Steve Letarte.
"We’re happy about the power plants," he said. "We’ve had some real good motors last week at Pocono. We knew coming in here it was going to be a plus for us. That is how it seemed to turn out today, like we expected. Hopefully, we can get this car to handle through the corner good, and utilize all that power on Sunday."
Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Johnson are collectively responsible for Hendrick’s four consecutive triumphs, which started with Gordon’s win at Kansas Speedway on Mother’s Day weekend. Johnson followed that up with back-to-back wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway before Earnhardt Jr. won at Pocono Raceway last weekend and returned to Victory Lane for the first time since the Daytona 500 in February.
For good reason, confidence is high in the Hendrick camp heading into Sunday’s 200-lap race.
"The car is just really solid," said Gordon, the Sprint Cup Series points leader. "I’m really proud of all the guys and all the hard work they’ve put in as well as the engine shop. At a place like this, the only way that Drive to End Hunger Chevy SS is getting around here that fast is that you’ve got to have a lot of power under the hood. The engineers are doing a great job with the bodies and getting the cars through the corners as well. We’ll certainly take this second place (qualifying run) and take it into Sunday with a lot of momentum and a lot of excitement."
Sunday’s race will be a battle for manufacturer bragging rights at a track located just down the road from the headquarters for Ford and General Motors.
Hendrick’s Chevrolet drivers will attempt to end Ford’s three-race Michigan winning streak that has featured two victories by Roush Fenway Racing’s Greg Biffle and one last August from Team Penske’s Joey Logano.
While nary a Ford driver finished either of Saturday’s two practices in the top 10, the manufacturer placed three drivers in the top 10 in qualifying, so there is some reason for optimism.
But will it be enough to beat back the Hendrick brigade?
"I think we’re really rolling here the last few weeks and running strong and in position to win races, so I’ve been very, very pleased by that — qualifying up front along with that – so there’s a lot to be proud of and I’m just really excited as this summer stretch is really kicking into full swing," said Ford driver Brad Keselowski, who qualified sixth at Michigan and nearly won last Sunday’s race at Pocono. "Hopefully, we can stack up a few more wins and kind of solidify ourselves as a team that’s ready to make a run for another championship as we go through the summer stretch and get ready for the fall beginning of the Chase. I’m on a bit of a confidence spree and really feeling good about things."