Last year, Hendrick Motor Sports had nine Sprint Cup wins. In 2014, that number was 13. In 33 years, as a team owner, Rick Hendrick has 242 wins. Only the various iterations of Petty Motorsports have more. Since 1995, the team has won 11 Sprint Cup championships. Pretty impressive résumé.
And then came 2016, the season that looks like Derrick Cope’s car at Watkins Glen 9 (seriously, what was that? I’m not buying brakes blowing out tires). In 22 races, only Jimmie Johnson has wins. He has two and the last one came on March 20. Johnson has twice as many DNFs (four) as wins this year.
And Johnson is the bright spot this year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been out the last four weeks with a concussion and, if he comes back this year, he will need a win to race for a championship. After a hot start, Chase Elliott has crashed back down to Earth, as rookies tend to do, but still sits in 12th place in the standings with a good chance to make the Chase. Kasey Kahne finds himself on the wrong side of the Chase bubble and only has two top-five finishes all year. With Chris Buescher’s win, that climb to race for a championship becomes harder.
The struggles at Hendrick have been magnified by the success being had at Joe Gibbs Racing. After Denny Hamlin’s win at the Glen, the Gibb’s crowd has nine wins (10 if you count Martin Truex’s win in the Gibbs-affiliated Furniture Row entry).
“It seems like when it rains, it pours. I think at Daytona we wrecked three or four cars” Hendrick said late last month. “And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again.
“I’ve been doing this long enough that you can’t stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we’ve made a lot of improvements. I think we’ll see some, hopefully, this weekend.”
Hendrick knows that Earnhardt’s recent woes haven’t helped improve things.
“This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through as one of your star drivers can’t drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped-up and is working harder,” he said.
“We’re determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It’s kind of our ‘refuse-to-lose’ belief. But we didn’t need this, for sure. We didn’t need the wrecks we’ve gone through. Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up.”
For many fans of other NASCAR teams, there is little sympathy for Hendrick’s recent struggle — see those stats at the start of the column — because they have spent so much time as the Sprint Cup’s top dog. Johnson was the villain after Gordon was the villain. Now they aren’t quite in “also-ran” status, but there are some lofty expectations that are not being lived up to.
Sure, Johnson may turn it around and win championship number seven. Earnhardt may come back and win a race before the Chase. Kahne may get one before Chicago and Hendrick may go from one locked-in team to four over the next month.
But with the way things have been going, I doubt it.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.