DAYTONA BEACH — Jimmie Johnson, one win. Dale Earnhardt Jr., one win. Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears, winless.
Hendrick Motorsports wrapped the Sprint Cup series in an anaconda squeeze and swallowed it whole last season, winning half of the 36 races — 10 of the first 14 — as Johnson won his second consecutive championship. Gordon was second and Kyle Busch, who was ousted for Earnhardt Jr., was fifth. By the 2007 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, Johnson had four wins en route to a series-best 10, Gordon four of six, Busch his one victory of the season and Mears his first Cup win.
A year later, NASCAR's most successful team is a statistical shadow of its recent self, if trips to Victory Lane are the lone factor. But they're not, and Hendrick might not be much worse off than a year ago. At least its race teams are telling themselves so.
Consider: Earnhardt Jr. is third in driver points, Johnson fifth and Gordon sixth and safely ensconced in the 12-driver Chase for the Championship field that will be settled nine races from now at Richmond. Wins pay well in prestige, points and purses, but consistency wins championships. And that means Hendrick's drivers are indeed having very good seasons.
"I wouldn't say that we've got the confidence or the momentum that we had this time last year, but I feel like our teams are still really solid," Gordon said. "I just think that we've gotten a little bit behind vs. the competition competitively. That's something that we're working hard on. Last year, as strong as we were going into the Chase, you still had no guarantee once you got into the Chase what was going to happen.
"As it turned out, we had an incredible run really throughout the whole year."
The vagaries of the Car of Tomorrow in its first full season have apparently helped prevent Hendrick from having another incredible run. The team won nine of 16 COT races, including the first five, in 2007.
"Everybody knew that was going to happen," said Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus. "Plus, you have to realize we were focusing on winning the championship (in 2007), so we were maintaining, building and developing two types of cars when if (teams) were outside the Chase, they were focused on the 2008 season while we were focused on winning the 2007 championship with two teams."
Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Mears, said the organization's biggest shortfall this season has been on the 1.5-mile tracks that compose much of the schedule. Although the team has not won on them yet, Earnhardt Jr., Gordon and Johnson have combined for six top-fives and seven top-10s in four races of that length.
"We struggled for different reasons with the new car, but now we seem to be getting our bearings," Gustafson said. "We seem to be making some gains. We're learning what we need."
The quirky strategies that have determined several races this year — including Kurt Busch's don't-pit-and-wait-for-rain win Sunday at New Hampshire — have almost devalued victories and emphasized consistency.
"I think winning the most races might be the easiest way of winning the championship, but I don't necessarily think that's what's going to win this Chase," Knaus said. "I think it's going to be a little more about consistency, just because the finishing positions of this car have been so sporadic."
Gordon, though, would just as soon start winning races in droves.
"We might get in the Chase and all of a sudden be on fire," he said. "I hope that's the case. But we won't know until we get there."
Brant James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804.