If you have followed this sport for any length of time, the one thing you have come to recognize is that no one organization or individual team stays on top for a lengthy period of time. Sure, teams and even organizations get on a roll and may rule the sport for several consecutive years, but soon their run at the top is over and they are replaced by the next king of the hill.
That may or may not be taking place at this time as the results of the Goody’s Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville Speedway’s on Sunday show that it is too early to declare Hendrick Motorsports’ position as the top-dog in the series up for grabs.
Leading into Martinsville, much was being made that Hendrick’s dynamic duo of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were sitting outside of the top 12 without a win between them. While those two Hendrick drivers were struggling when compared to their past accomplishments, their new teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was stepping up as the newfound flag bearer for the organization that can boast of having seven Cup championship trophies in its trophy case.
While Earnhardt Jr. continued his hot driving with a sixth-place finish on Sunday, it was the finbetter ishing order of the rest of the Hendrick stable that now has everyone saying it could be a return to normal for the four-team operation.
Gordon and Johnson both needed good runs and they got exactly what they needed as Gordon finished second and Johnson fourth – good enough to move both drivers into the top 12 in the ninth and 10th spots. They join Earnhardt Jr. in fourth, giving Hendrick three drivers in the early battle for making the Chase. The organization’s good fortune didn’t end there as the fourth driver in the stable, Casey Mears, moved up six spots in the standings to 27th, thanks to a seventh place finish.
The biggest obstacle Hendrick must now get over is to get one of its four teams to victory lane. The next stop on the schedule is Texas Motor Speedway and it couldn’t come at a time for the organization as Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are past winners at the track and, along with Gordon, have each posted seven Texas top-10 finishes in their careers.
Even with a win this weekend at Texas, Hendrick knows it can no longer dominate the series like it did as recently as last season. It has nothing to do with what is going on in its shops, but instead has all to do with what took place at the shops of the teams that Hendrick once dominated.
This is a tribute to Hendrick as it raised the bar in the sport and it forced the rest of the series to step up their game in order to compete. Richard Childress Racing, which for years was Chevrolet’s top organization, has had to sit and watch over the last couple of years as Hendrick became Chevy’s top organization. Now that seems to be on the edge of changing as Childress¿ Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick sit in the top-two spots in the standings.
The newest threat to Hendrick’s dominating position in the sport may now come from Toyota’s new on-track success. Ironically, much of Toyota’s success this season can be traced back to Joe Gibbs Racing and its newest driver, Kyle Busch. This is Gibbs’ first season campaigning the Toyota after being a long time General Motors organization and Busch came over to the Gibbs camp from Hendrick Motorsports.
The three Gibbs teams are all locked in the top 10 with Busch in fifth, Tony Stewart in sixth, followed by Denny Hamlin in eighth, but the difference between the two organizations lies in the number of trips to victory lane this season. While Hendrick is still looking for that first trip, Gibbs has been there twice with Hamlin’s win on Sunday and Busch’s win at Atlanta.
While those teams will be racing hard against each other to move into the Chase and have the opportunity to run for the title, teams from Jack Roush Racing and Penske Racing may also have a say in who ends up sitting at the head table at the season ending banquet. Both of those organizations have teams in the top 12 and both have made trips to victory lane this season.
It may only be April, but the racing we are seeing looks more like August and September as the competition level continues to rise in the sport.
Race Preview – Event: Samsung 500. Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: April 6, 2 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: PRN. Defending champion: Jeff Burton.