It’s hard to believe, but it is actually time to start looking forward to the next Sprint Cup season. The 2008 season was filled with enough ups and downs to build a roller coaster and Hendrick Motorsports was no exception.
Now don’t get me wrong, any time your organization can produce a record-tying third consecutive Sprint Cup championship it had to be a terrific year, but you have to remember we are talking about Hendrick Motorsports and the bar that owner Rick Hendrick has set is higher than at any other shop in the sport. Jimmie Johnson’s third crown gave Hendrick his eighth overall in the series, as Jeff Gordon has four titles and former driver Terry Labonte won a title while driving for Hendrick.
This past season found Hendrick drivers Johnson, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. make the field for the Chase. Fellow driver Casey Mears was playing the role of lame duck as Hendrick announced during the middle of the season that he would not be coming back in ’09. Even though the organization had three drivers make the Chase, the only one that had the kind of season that was up to Hendrick standards was Johnson.
Johnson’s year was the envy of the rest of the series as he got off to a slow start only to get better and better with each race. He and crew chief Chad Knaus were able to notch that third title by winning seven races to go along with 15 top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes. While Johnson and Knaus were able to work on their new COT and make it better, the same can’t be said for Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Mears.
Gordon finished a very respectable seventh in the Chase but he failed to win a race, breaking his string of 14 consecutive years of winning at least one race that began back in 1994. Although he didn’t win a race, he did post some good numbers with 13 top-5 and 19 top-10 finishes. Unlike Knaus, his crew chief Steve Letarte never seemed to get the handle on the kind of adjustments it took on the COT to put Gordon in a position to be running at the end of a race with a chance to win.
Hendrick’s newest driver, Dale Jr., did make it to victory lane in his first season with the organization, but other than that one win the highlights for this team were very few. Even though he made the Chase, he never was a factor as he finished in 12th place with season totals of 10 top-5 and 16 top-10 finishes. By Hendrick standards, it was an underachieving year for this team and if its performance doesn’t pick up in ’09, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. may find himself on the hot seat.
Hendrick’s fourth team struggled this season with Casey Mears behind the wheel, but he was able to claim a 20th-place finish in the standings that puts the car safely inside the top 35, assuring it of a starting spot in the first five races of the season. Being assured of a starting spot for the beginning of the season can take a lot of pressure off a new driver, but when the new driver is going to be Mark Martin it almost becomes an unfair advantage.
Martin was named the driver for ’09 last season, which now gives the organization four drivers that can win on any race day and finish first in the final point standings. Martin has been competing in the series since 1981 and has 16 top-10 points finishes on his resume¿ with four of those finishes runner-up spots. Since his days with Jack Roush, Martin has always been known as a team driver who would share information with his fellow drivers, which definitely fits the mold of Hendrick drivers who always put the organization first.
Martin is a competitor and should be good for the four-team organization that seems to thrive on competition. Make no mistake, Martin is at Hendrick’s for one reason and one reason only, and that is to run for the title. He will now have the equipment and manpower to do it, but so will his three teammates that also want to give Hendrick Motor Sports its ninth title.
It could be that if you are good enough to be the best at Hendrick in 2009 the Sprint Cup championship will automatically come with it.