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Hendrick teams contending, just not dominating

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 brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.

>>FAST FACTS

Coke Zero 400

When/where: 8 tonight, Daytona International Speedway

TV/radio: TNT; 620-AM

Forecast: 80 degrees,

30 percent chance for thunderstorms, wind 9 mph.

Lineup

Coke Zero 400

At Daytona International Speedway

Position, No., driver, make, speed

1. 15 Paul Menard Chevrolet 185.916

2. 8 Mark Martin Chevrolet 185.870

3. 88 D. Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet 185.437

4. 78 Joe Nemechek Chevrolet 185.288

5. 70 Johnny Sauter Chevrolet 185.250

6. 6 David Ragan Ford 185.246

7. 60 Boris Said Ford 185.181

8. 01 Regan Smith Chevrolet 184.976

9. 18 Kyle Busch Toyota 184.828

10. 10 Patrick Carpentier Dodge 184.676

11. 28 Travis Kvapil Ford 184.672

12. 22 Dave Blaney Toyota 184.653

13. 84 AJ Allmendinger Toyota 184.638

14. 29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet 184.532

15. 11 Denny Hamlin Toyota 184.528

16. 5 Casey Mears Chevrolet 184.487

17. 20 Tony Stewart Toyota 184.472

18. 09 Sterling Marlin Chevrolet184.460

19. 17 Matt Kenseth Ford 184.430

20. 43 Bobby Labonte Dodge 184.388

21. 00 M. McDowell Toyota 184.362

22. 21 Jon Wood Ford 184.362

23. 31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet 184.211

24. 99 Carl Edwards Ford 184.166

25. 07 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet 184.166

26. 24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet 184.090

27. 38 David Gilliland Ford 184.083

28. 83 Brian Vickers Toyota 184.049

29. 55 Michael Waltrip Toyota 183.970

30. 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet 183.820

31. 42 J. Pablo Montoya Dodge 183.809

32. 12 Ryan Newman Dodge 183.760

33. 16 Greg Biffle Ford 183.737

34. 44 David Reutimann Toyota 183.625

35. 1 Martin Truex Jr. Chevrolet 183.587

36. 2 Kurt Busch Dodge 183.542

37. 7 Robby Gordon Dodge 183.441

38. 19 Elliott Sadler Dodge 183.355

39. 41 Reed Sorenson Dodge 183.307

40. 26 Jamie McMurray Ford 183.258

41. 9 Kasey Kahne Dodge Points

42. 77 Sam Hornish Jr. Dodge Points

43. 45 Terry Labonte Dodge Past Champ

Failed to qualify

44. 66 Scott Riggs Chevrolet 184.268

45. 96 J.J. Yeley Toyota 184.079

>>SPRINT CUP

Point standings

Through 17 of 36 races. The top 12 through 26 races qualify for the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Kyle Busch 2,496—

Jeff Burton 2,432 64

D. Earnhardt Jr. 2,352 144

Carl Edwards 2,262 234

J. Johnson 2,220 276

Jeff Gordon 2,171 325

Denny Hamlin 2,150 346

Greg Biffle 2,119 377

Tony Stewart 2,042 454

Kasey Kahne 2,031 465

Clint Bowyer 2,021 475

Kevin Harvick 2,016 480

A harbinger?

Seven times in the past 20 seasons, the winner of the summer race at Daytona has gone on take the Cup championship. They are:

2005 Tony Stewart

1999 Dale Jarrett

1998 Jeff Gordon

1995 Jeff Gordon

1993 Dale Earnhardt

1990 Dale Earnhardt

1988 Bill Elliott

Hendrick teams contending, just not dominating 07/04/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 4, 2008 10:28pm]

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