The final race before the Chase was anti-climatic, but the final ten races should be quite the opposite. Just take a look back at the incredibly close finish in 2014 for the evidence.
Matt Kenseth took the checkered flag for the fourth time this season at Richmond this past Saturday night. To no one’s surprise, Clint Boywer, Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard, and Ryan Newman remained in the top sixteen of the points standings to advance to NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, which gets underway this Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Illinois.
By winning 11 of the first 25 races, Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates (Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Carl Edwards) are definitely ready for the Chase. So is Penske Racing with 2012 champ Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as well as defending champ Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas.
But what is going on with Hendrick Motorsports?
Jimmie Johnson is the top seed, but the last of his four wins came in late May. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has struggled to get up front and seems to have no speed at all in qualifying. Jeff Gordon is having a very mediocre season and has yet to win a race, and Kasey Kahne did not even qualify for the Chase.
“I don’t like the fact that we haven’t led laps,” Rick Hendrick told Fox Sports on September 10th.
Hendrick has won 11 championships as a team owner; the most recent was Jimmie Johnson's sixth title in 2013.
“We’ve just fumbled the ball more than normal," said Hendrick. "But the true character of an organization and a team is how you fight back.”
That fight begins this week.
Gordon finished seventh in Richmond and made the Chase, but even he would say his final full-time season has been disappointing. He was 42nd at Indy and 41st at Watkins Glen, and who could forget getting tangled up in a late crash that relegated him to 33rd in the Daytona 500. He was third at Bristol in the spring, and also at Pocono in August, but has rarely found himself in position to go to victory lane.
“We’re behind. We know that,” Gordon said. “But there’s a lot of ways to make it to Homestead and there’s a lot that can happen and we’re working as hard as anybody to try to see what we can do better, learn from our competitors, and try to catch up.”
The Chase could be somewhat of a fresh start for the 4-time Champ who was tremendously relieved to get in.
“We work hard together to try to improve for each of us, and if we continue to do that, we’ll make gains. There was a lot of pressure in this final season to make that Chase, so I’m glad we got that done.”
Earnhardt won the restrictor plate races at Talladega and Daytona in July, and probably should have won the Daytona 500, but had nowhere to go in the closing laps. Junior has been quietly racking up some great finishes in the past two months, but has not led a lap since that July 5th win in the Coke Zero 400. I really believe he can win the title, but his qualifying efforts must improve in the Chase. There are just some tracks that you cannot recover from a bad starting spot, especially when the frontrunners for Gibbs and Penske are almost guaranteed to be starting up front when the green flag drops.
As has been the case with much of his career, Kahne just seems to have more bad luck than good. His best finish in the final ten races before the Chase was 12th at Darlington. He managed just six top ten finishes on the season and besides the Daytona 500 and the first Phoenix race in March, was never a threat to win a race. He had a bizarre crash into the inside pit wall at Pocono, seemed rattled and never gained his confidence back after that.
“The main thing for me is trying to figure out how to get a car to turn again,” Kahne told NBC Sports after Richmond. “I’ve struggled all year to have front-turn and if I don’t have that, I can’t race. That’s how I have been my whole life.”
Kahne and crew chief Keith Rodden really need to use the final ten races as a time to gel going into next season or Kahne will start feeling the pressure from Hendrick.
Johnson is obviously Hendrick’s best shot at the championship this year, but obviously that could all change in an instant like it did in last year's Chase. On Monday, Johnson signed a two-year contract extension with Hendrick and sponsor Lowes. His crew chief Chad Knaus is now under contract through 2018, despite rumors he might bolt for a television gig. Could the new deals create the environment needed to run down title number seven?
“Like it or not, whether we care to admit it or not, the summer months are always hard on us,” Johnson said.
“We feel like we are behind, we’re not building the mouse trap the way we need to and we are aggressively working on it. But the format is more forgiving, we are getting back on our best tracks and I would never count us out.”
Johnson looked unbeatable in the spring winning Texas and Kansas, finishing second at Bristol and Talladega, and placing third at Richmond. The team rallied from trouble in Kansas to get a fuel mileage win, but will Knaus gamble that much in the Chase? And will the same qualifying issues that plague Earnhardt also strike the #48?
The underlying theme is that the people at Hendrick know they’re struggling and that they are not the team to beat heading into the Chase. Perhaps that will provide them the motivation they need. It could also make them more dangerous with less pressure than Johnson, Earnhardt, and Gordon have ever faced before.
“I don’t like to lose. I’m very competitive,” said Hendrick before the final regular season race.
“But you can do two things when you come under adversity: you can throw a tantrum, you can raise hell and you can bust it all up. You can change people, you can fire people. Or if you can see that you’re just this much (off) in this area, this much in this area..we’ve got to go to work. And they are working. I’m spending more time with them to make sure they know I have their back. Look, it’s not broken, It’s not a dead player. We’re off a little bit.”
When Hendrick talks, everyone in NASCAR listens. And while everyone is questioning the results and the speed of his cars going into the Chase, that doesn’t mean anyone who knows the sport is writing them off just yet.
“It ain’t over yet. So you go ahead and count us out.”