Bruce Martin
Monday March 24th, 2008

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- The next seven races will determine whether Hendrick Motorsports has lost its advantage over the Sprint Cup field or whether the sport's elite team will bounce back with another championship run.

That's because Hendrick's best tracks are coming up, beginning with Sunday's 500-lap short track battle at Martinsville Speedway.

So far this season, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have gotten off to atypical starts. Johnson, the two-time defending Cup champion, ranks 13th in the overall standings while four-time champion Gordon is 14th.

Both are looking for their first 2008 victory and it very well could come in the next few races.

Surprisingly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has easily been the best of the four Hendrick drivers through the first five races. Although he's yet to win a Cup points race in 2008, he's fifth in the standings with three top five and four top 10 finishes.

The fourth HMS driver is Casey Mears who's suffered through a terrible start, unable to crack the top 10 in any of the first five events. That leaves him mired in 33rd position.

David Ragan (21st), David Gilliland (22nd), Scott Riggs (24th), David Reutimann (26th), Paul Menard (27th), Travis Kvapil (28th), JJ Yeley (31st) and Jeremy Mayfield (32nd) all rank higher in the standings than Mears, who was expected to have a breakout season at Hendrick when he took over the No. 5 car previously driven by Kyle Busch.

Mears is already 414 points out of the Sprint Cup points lead and it may already be too late for him to dig his way out of that hole, but there remains plenty of hope for Johnson and Gordon to get back into title contention.

So let's take a look at where these two drivers can make some tremendous gains over the next few weeks.


Johnson is going for his fourth win in a row at the paper-clip shaped short track and his fifth win overall in Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500. He has eight top-five finishes and 11 top-10s in 12 career starts.

Perhaps Johnson's most famous win came last April when he frustrated Gordon in the closing laps. On the final lap, Gordon even tried to knock Johnson's car out of the way coming off the fourth turn, but Johnson took the checkered flag, leaving Gordon upset afterwards in what was the second race for the current car used in Sprint Cup racing.

Gordon has seven wins at Martinsville, but his last victory came in the fall race in 2005, completing a season sweep of both races at the North Carolina track. He also has 18 top five and 24 top 10 finishes in 30 career Martinsville starts.


This may be the worst track for the Hendrick duo of Johnson and Gordon. Johnson has one win (November 2007), four top five and seven top 10 finishes in nine career starts. Gordon is winless with five top five and seven top 10 starts in 14 career starts.

Texas and Homestead-Miami Speedway are the only tracks on the current schedule where Gordon has never won. But he has gotten closer in recent seasons, finishing fourth last April and seventh in November.


Johnson scored his first career PIR win last November. It was the decisive blow in his title run as he went to Homestead the next day and clinched his second-straight title. Johnson has four top five and seven top 10 finishes in nine career starts.

Gordon scored his first career Phoenix win in last April's Subway 500. He has eight top five and 15 top 10 finishes in 18 career PIR starts.

A top finish by either of these two drivers in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on April 12 could help them get back in the race for first place.


This track certainly favors Gordon more than Johnson.

Gordon has six wins, 13 top five and 16 top 10 finishes in 30 career starts. He swept both races last season in two cars (the older Chevrolet Monte Carlo and the new generation Chevrolet Impala SS). Since 2004, Gordon has four Talladega wins.

By contrast, Johnson has one win (spring 2006), four top five and five top 10 finishes in 12 career starts.

Either one of these two drivers could win the Aaron's 499 on April 27.


Johnson swept both Richmond races in 2007 for his only two career wins at the short track. He has three top five and three top 10 finishes in 12 career starts.

Gordon has two wins, 12 top five and 18 top 10s in 30 career starts at Richmond.


Gordon has seven wins in 27 starts including last May. He has 15 top five and 18 top 10 finishes in 27 career starts. Johnson has two wins, five top five and eight top 10 finishes in nine career starts. So this is definitely a track that favors both drivers in the Dodge Challenger 500 on May 10.


Both of these drivers could hit it big in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 25. Johnson has an incredible five wins, including one stretch of four straight victories with season sweeps in 2004 and 2005. He also has eight top five and 11 top 10 finishes in 13 career starts.

Johnson won his first career Cup race in the 1994 Coca-Cola 600. That was the first of his five victories, capped by last October's Bank of America 500. He also has 14 top five and 16 top 10 finishes in 30 career starts.

So by the time this stretch of races is completed, expect to see both Gordon and Johnson solidly in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings.

Jeff Burton may have said it best about Hendrick Motorsports after winning the Food City 500 at Bristol earlier this month. "You wake the sleeping giant, they're going to be hard to beat," Burton said. "There's no getting around that."

As for the slow start, Gordon has tried to determine the reason and the answer is fairly simple: He crashed in the Daytona 500 and in the closing laps at Las Vegas, when he was battling for the victory.

"I feel like we had a car capable of winning at California," Gordon said. "We have had really good cars, but I don't feel like we have had the car to beat yet. A few little things here and there, we could have maybe pulled one off. But we weren't the car to beat."

While Earnhardt has stepped up his game and fit in as a great teammate at Hendrick, Gordon is bewildered why Johnson has not been more competitive this season.

"We are all kind of scratching our heads trying to figure out what is going on with the No. 48," Gordon said. "I will say it is early, it is a new car and they have been so good, I can't really tell you other than they have been trying some different things that haven't been working out for them. At California, they had my setup because they had been struggling. Jimmie just wasn't getting the feel and wasn't comfortable. They put our setup in or something very close to it, and then they were fast and very happy with it.

"I just know they have been doing the same things that they always do. Those guys are solid, they are a great team and it just hasn't been working for them. To me, you never count those guys out. They may be struggling right now, but ... our organization is strong, those guys are strong."


Two weeks ago at Bristol, Aric Almirola took over DEI's No. 8 Chevrolet for the first time this season as Mark Martin took the first of his scheduled race weekends off. Almirola was very impressive with an eighth-place finish in his first Bristol start.

"That's where we should run," he said. "I've been telling all these guys on this crew that throughout my career, I tried too hard to run all the laps and learn as much as I could. Coming into this year, I've taken a different approach and I've got my elbows up and I'm going to go out there and race with these guys. These guys on this team deserve it. They build great race cars."

Almirola said he is tired of sitting on top of the pit box and believes with 12 more races on his schedule, he can get 12 more top 10s.

When asked if he could talk Martin into sitting out a few more races, Almirola quipped, "I wish."

DEI teammate Martin Truex Jr. has given his stamp of approval to the young driver, who appears more than capable of taking over a top-flight ride in the series.

"I think Aric is ready," Truex said. "He tested at Phoenix with us and ran really well, we worked well together. He absorbed information better than any young guy I've ever seen."


When asked to give a grade on NASCAR's new car through the first five races this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't give it high marks.

"I would give it about a 'C' or so," he said. "There are a lot of things about it that are nice and are good. There are a lot of things about it that still need some work and hopefully the window is still cracked open for some slow change, maybe some slow, methodical evolution for this car over the next two to three years because it is obviously here to stay. I would hate to think that this is exactly how this car is going to be three years from now."


Now that Brian Vickers is 17th in the standings after the fifth race of the season, he can look forward to being locked into the field beginning at Martinsville.

That's much different than last season, when he was driving for the startup Team Red Bull and missed 13 of the 36 races by not being in the top 35 in the standings.

"It is a huge relief and a tremendous step forward for Red Bull," Vickers said of avoiding the go-or-go-home group on the outside of the top 35 cusp in the standings. "To go through what we went through last year -- I don't think anybody anticipated it, but it definitely built a lot of character in the organization. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. "

Vickers sees a huge benefit in coming to the track and having a systematic plan for the weekend rather than having to put so much effort on just making the field in qualifying.

"Being able to run more race trim on Friday, like most teams, will help tremendously," he said. "We may not always do that, but places where we feel like we'll need it, then it can only make us that much better. Especially when you have only 15 or 20 minutes of race practice on Friday and you have a night to sleep on it, versus the two sessions you get on Saturday and you don't really get a night to sleep on it and try it again."


So how did team owner Richard Childress celebrate the first 1-2-3 sweep of his career when Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer finished in that order at Bristol? He left country on a trip to Mongolia.

Childress is a big-game hunter whose trophy room has been featured in coffee table books on hunting. Moreover, he's won the famed "Grand Slam of Sheep" in his career which makes him as adept with a rifle and shotgun as he is running a successful NASCAR operation.

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