Hendrick Motorsports’ season could be described in one word – disappointment. None of their four cars made the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after entering the season with high expectations. However, in the midst of some tough luck throughout the year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were able to record eight wins between the two.
Earnhardt, Jr. started off 2014 with a bang – winning his second career Daytona 500. The momentum carried over throughout the first half of the year, and he was able to sweep the Pocono races. For the first time since 2004, he had a multi-win season, which was a key to the mindset of the No. 88 team.
Working with Steve Letarte for the final year, the two were deemed for success. Earning 12 top fives and 20 top 10s on the year, he was on track to contend with teammate Jeff Gordon for a championship. However, with three consecutive finishes of 20th or worse in the midst of the Chase, Earnhardt, Jr. missed the cut for the third round. Although he came back to win the next race at Martinsville, the disappointment of not finishing in the top five in points for the second straight year was immense.
The chemistry between the two finally paid off in 2014, but it wasn’t enough for them to win a championship. Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet led at least one lap in 17 events this year, which tallied up to a total of 383 laps led – the most for him since his first year at Hendrick. But inconsistency prior to the Chase destroyed the momentum that he had as the competition began to catch up with Hendrick’s pure speed.
As for Johnson, 2014 was one he would love to forget. Or maybe not.
Finishing a career-low 11th in points, the six-time champion had the worst year in 13 full-time seasons in NASCAR. Although he scored four wins like Earnhardt, Johnson’s luck deteriorated over the course of 2014. What seemed like his usual summer drought became more than that. Spanning Daytona in July to Watkins Glen in mid-August, he had five finishes of 14th or worse.
His luck changed just in time for the Chase, yet the speed that the No. 48 team had earlier in the season was not seen in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Besides leading 21 laps at Michigan, Johnson failed to run up front spanning Bristol until Charlotte. The stretch of races eliminated him from the Chase at the same time as the No. 88 team. Johnson scored a win in dominating fashion at Texas late in the year, which helped him become the seventh driver in the sport’s history to do so. But that was the lone bright spot of his Chase efforts.
Throughout the season, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus experienced plenty of drama. The two have worked together since 2002, and they have been able to overcome all types of adversity. However, Johnson was adamant to reporters asking about a possibility that Knaus would oversee another driver’s car in 2015. Hendrick had plenty of reasons to find a new crew chief for Johnson, but the win at Texas showed they still have what it takes to be successful given the right circumstances.
The 2015 rules package should provide Hendrick Motorsports with multiple advantages. As the largest and most successful team in the sport, they have more resources to help out with the only testing coming from the Goodyear tire tests. However, Earnhardt will have a new crew chief in Greg Ives, which could create a rough start for the No. 88 team.
With the no testing policy going into place for the new season, the duo will have limited time to gel at the intermediate tracks. However, with a similar personality to Letarte, Ives and Earnhardt should click very well. After having one of the best seasons of his career, he’s expected to run inside of the top 10 on a consistent basis; picking up from where he left off in 2014.
As for Johnson, he will be a championship contender once again. Although this past season didn’t go as planned, the No. 48 team showed they have what it takes to win. Knaus is always ahead of the competition when a new package is released, which should give them an advantage in 2015. Besides the new rule’s package, the two have a great incentive to win, and that’s to prove people wrong like they have in the past.
Johnson had career-lows in top fives and top 10s and average finish in 2014, but 2015 should see more success for the Lowe’s team. He ended the year on a high note, and Hendrick is deemed for success with their 2015 lineup.