Hendrick Motorsports dominated Sprint Cup racing in 2007. The stable of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears won 18 races, which is half of the 36 points races last season. Johnson and Gordon finished one and two in the championship standings, with Johnson taking home his second consecutive Sprint Cup title. Despite their success, the folks at Hendrick didn't stand pat going into 2008. Busch's mercurial style made him the odd man out with the straight-laced Hendrick franchise. He was replaced by a bigger name with equal talent – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Entering '08, it looked as though Hendrick might dominate the NASCAR headlines:
- Johnson going for a third consecutive title.
- Gordon back in peak form and seeking his fifth Cup championship.
- Earnhardt looking to return to the winner's circle and perhaps challenge for his first points championship.
In short, as the Sprint Cup entered '08, it looked like a racing dynasty might be forming at Hendrick Motorsports.
Reality Sets In
The season started with a bang for Hendrick, as Earnhardt won the season-opening Budweiser Shootout exhibition race, and Johnson took the pole for the Daytona 500. However, since the first weekend of Speed Weeks, it has been a surprisingly rocky start for the Hendrick teams. Of the four Hendrick drivers, only Earnhardt has performed better in this season's first five races than in 2007. Thus far in '08, Hendrick drivers have yet to reach Victory Lane; they've posted six top-fives and seven top-10s. While these are solid numbers, they pale in comparison to last season. When the Hendrick rigs rolled out of Bristol Motor Speedway in '07, all four drivers combined to post three wins, seven top-fives and 11 top-10s.
For fantasy owners that spent high draft picks on Hendrick drivers this season, they have been left with more questions than answers. One question is whether the Hendrick drop-off can be explained by a slow start and some bad luck, or has something more fundamental gone wrong that might require fantasy owners to start looking for alternatives. Let's take a look at the Hendrick drivers individually to get a better sense of what might be going on and what fantasy owners can expect out of their drivers for the remainder of the season.
Earnhardt is delivering on the high expectations that were placed on him to start 2008. He has three top-fives and four top-10s through the season's first five races. He looked like the guy to beat during Speed Weeks and looked primed to win his second Daytona 500. However, a strange decision to stay out during a late caution while the other leaders pitted left him with no chance to win when the race went green. He finished a respectable ninth. After a wreck that was no fault of his own relegated him to 40th in the Auto Club 500, Junior has posted three consecutive top-five finishes. Tellingly, his average finish through the season's first five races is 11.8. Through the same five races last season, Earnhardt posted a 20.8 average finish while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. It is also worth noting that Busch posted an 18.4 average finish for Hendrick through the first five races of 2007. While Busch is off to an excellent start driving for his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, Earnhardt has given Hendrick little reason to regret making the switch. Sure, the cries for a win will get louder and louder until Earnhardt gets to Victory Lane, but it looks like that will be just a matter of time.
The bottom line is that Earnhardt has been Hendrick Motorsports' most reliable driver through Bristol. He has made a habit of running up front in races and has led in three of them. From a fantasy perspective, Earnhardt may be better than advertised. Fantasy owners reasonably expected significant improvement over last year's disappointment – a comfortable spot in the Chase, a few wins and perhaps a spot in the top-five. Now, one wonders if Earnhardt may be this year's answer to Gordon in 2007 – Gordon won six times and had 30 top-10s last season. Like Earnhardt, Gordon had three top-fives and four top-10s while failing to register a win through last season's first five races. Hmm?
As mentioned, Gordon was off to a fantastic start in 2007 and never looked back. Through the first five races last year, Gordon had three top-fives and a 5.8 average finish. This season, Gordon has two top-fives through last week's race at Bristol. His results might have been better, but he had suspension problems in the Daytona 500 and a nasty crash took him out of the season's third race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. If not for these uncontrollable circumstances, Gordon might be looking at four top-fives already this year. Overall, in four of the first five races, Gordon has looked like a top contender for the Cup. In the last race at Bristol, he was unspectacular but solid, finishing 11th.
After catching very few bad breaks in '07, Gordon has had more than his share of bad luck early on in '08. His 18.6 average finish is not what fantasy owners, who made Gordon one of their top picks in many drafts, were expecting. There is little reason of concern, however. Gordon is off to an excellent start despite what the numbers say. He has the ability to win at any track and could get hot at any time. Gordon owners would be wise to hold on to him, realizing that as the season goes on, he is likely to rise to the top. Other owners may look to acquire Gordon if he is available.
Johnson's start to 2008 is a perplexing case. Unlike Gordon, it is difficult to blame Johnson's woes on bad luck. He has simply not been very good, despite racing on tracks where he has had long-term and short-term success. Everything looked A-OK at California Speedway where Johnson backed up last season's first and third place runs with a second-place finish. Then Las Vegas happened! Johnson was the three-time defending champ there but never contended and finished 29th. At Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he swept two Cup races in 2007, Johnson only mustered a 13th-place finish. He finished 18th at Bristol last week.
Perhaps fantasy owners have become spoiled by Johnson, but the fact is that he has not gone this far into a season without a win since 2003. His slow start has some fantasy owners dusting off the panic button. It is probably not time to press the button just yet, however. While this may seem an inexplicable phenomenon, Johnson suggests that the team is doing some experimenting and will get the better for it later in the season. That sounds good, but it's hard to believe Johnson didn't want to win four in a row in Las Vegas. Perhaps the best approach is to take a wait and see attitude on Johnson. Let's see how he does at Martinsville Speedway next week where he has won the past three Cup races at the track. A win at Martinsville would quickly heal any fissures in fantasy owners' confidence in Johnson. On the flip side, any more "experiments" could make that panic button look very attractive.
Last year, Mears finished 30th or worse six times in the season's first 11 races. In the remaining 25 races, he had an average finish of 14.2. It looked as if Mears had turned the corner on his racing career - continued improvement would almost certainly mean he would make the Chase for the first time in 2008. Unfortunately, Mears has done last year's slow start one better. Through five races this season, his average finish is 31.8; it was 25.8 at this point in 2007. A season that began with high hopes for Mears, on the heels of last year's strong finish, is quickly disintegrating. Any hopes he has of making the Chase lies in a rapid turnaround.
Could Mears simply be a slow starter? Do these season-opening tracks not suit Mears' driving style? These are questions that owners of Mears might be asking themselves in fantasy leagues everywhere. They make for good follow-up questions too: "Why did I draft Mears ahead of Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and _________(fill in the blank)?" Mears' slow start has trumped Johnson's and made him THE early season bust in fantasy racing. Mears did turn it around last year, so it is not out of the question that he will do it again this season. However, the damage may already be done for Mears' owners. For those that don't own Mears, he makes an attractive "buy low" candidate if you can get him for the right price.