Despite slow starts, Gordon and Kahne have time to bounce back
Stung by a season in which his teams failed to finish in the top five in points for the first time in more than a decade, car owner Rick Hendrick challenged his organization in front of dozens of cameras and approximately 200 reporters in late January.
"I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't have all four cars in the Chase," Hendrick said, "and I'm going to be really disappointed if we don't win the championship."
Two months later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Hendrick's only driver in the top five in points. Jimmie Johnson is the only other team driver currently in the top 10. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne are outside the top 20. All four remain winless as the organization waits to celebrate its 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, a party that has been on hold since October.
Hendrick's demands before the season weren't outlandish. Still, they made a bold statement for an owner who typically prefers more subtle methods of motivation. One year he told his organization that everyone was tied for last instead of tied for first entering the season -- the point being that drivers couldn't rely on past success in the upcoming year.
This time, Hendrick said he had reason to be more outspoken.
"I can't remember having four teams this solid, this strong, rolling into the year,'' he said. "I think we're as prepared as we have ever been, and if we don't get it, it's going to be our fault.''
On Sunday, however, Gordon absorbed another sucker punch in what has been a season full of setbacks. After suffering an engine failure at Daytona and a rub from Earnhardt that cut a tire and caused a crash at Bristol, Gordon fell victim to a pit road penalty at Auto Club Speedway. He dropped to 25th in points -- the lowest that he's ever been five races into a season.
Before making too much of Gordon's slow start, though, here's a little perspective: Brad Keselowski was 23rd in the standings and 50 points out of 10th place after five races last year. He made the Chase. Gordon is currently 51 points out of 10th.
Of course, Gordon wouldn't even be in this situation if not for the problems that have plagued him throughout the season.
"Our cars, at times, have run really good, but it just seems like when we're having good days something strange has come up that's kept us from getting a good finish,'' Gordon said before Sunday's race. "There's not an urgency, but we're starting to feel a bit more pressure to start putting those good finishes together that I know we are capable of doing, which is the good thing.''
That Gordon has run well at times this season -- he ran in the top five for nearly half the race on Sunday -- makes the current stretch a bit more bearable.
"The toughest thing to deal with and the far more challenging issue is when you're in the race Sunday and you're running really bad and you're running bad throughout the whole weekend,'' Gordon said. "That's far worse because it's a lot harder to fix that than it is to get to the finish in one piece when you have a good car, good pit crew, good strategy being called. We will get those finishes. We are a good enough team where we'll start to put them together. I think when they start to come, they'll come more often.
"It's funny how every season is, you come into it and everybody's confident and I feel like our team is better right now than they were last year, but yet we haven't been able to show the results.''
He didn't get the chance on Sunday. As Gordon pulled out of the pits on what would be his next-to-last stop in the rain-shortened race, the team's gas man struggled to disconnect the can. He grabbed it but not before falling down and out of Gordon's pit box. That's removing equipment from an assigned pit box. Gordon's sentence was to return to pit road for a stop-and-go penalty that placed him a lap behind the leaders.
When the rain commenced, crew chief Alan Gustafson called Gordon to pit road. The rain intensified. NASCAR stopped the race and called it soon after. Instead of a top-five finish, which looked possible only laps earlier, Gordon finished 26th.
Kahne knows similar drama.
Picked by many to make the Chase in this, his first year at Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has endured a difficult start. A crash ended his Daytona 500 early. He damaged his car when he hit the wall early in the Phoenix race and finished 34th. He crashed early at Bristol and finished 37th, and placed just 19th at Las Vegas. Such a poor start left Kahne in dire need of finishing.
Crew chief Kenny Francis' last-minute instructions to Kahne on Sunday were simple: "Be smart and take care of it and we'll try to have an uneventful day and be there at the end.''
Kahne responded on the radio: "Sounds good.''
After starting fifth, Kahne began to slide back but still managed to finish. When the rain stopped the race short after 129 of 200 laps, Kahne was a season-high 14th.
Afterward, Kahne wrote on Twitter: "Pissed I ran bad. Happy my car is in one piece.''
Again, a sense of perspective: Kahne is 27th in the standings, 68 points out of 10th place. While that's worse than Keselowski was at this time a year ago, Keselowski would fall as far back as 95 points out of 10th six races before the Chase field was set. He still made the cut.
Almost any other year, it would be easy for Gordon and Kahne's teams to panic given the season's disappointing start. But that's the beauty of the wildcard spots NASCAR created before last year -- they give those who struggle early a chance to make the title Chase.
Such issues should elude Johnson and Earnhardt. For as frequently as Gordon and Kahne have had problems, Johnson and Earnhardt have mostly avoided them. Johnson was wrecked on lap two at Daytona but has since recovered. His team also won its appeal to get the 25 points back that NASCAR penalized them for an infraction with the car at Daytona. Johnson's good fortune continued when his car started spewing oil after the caution flag came out for rain Sunday. NASCAR soon stopped the race, allowing Johnson to finish 10th. Johnson has four top-10 finishes in the first five races. Only points leader Greg Biffle matches that total.
Earnhardt's third-place finish at Auto Club Speedway vaulted him three spots to third in points. This is similar to the fast start he had last year, when he nearly won at Martinsville (where the series heads this weekend) and the Coca-Cola 600.
"I like how our season is going so far,'' Earnhardt said. "If we can keep going like this, we might get some opportunities like we did last year of winning some races and seal the deal eventually.''
Maybe he will be this weekend at Martinsville. Then again, Gordon could change his season at the paper-clip track where he's scored 13 top-five finishes in the last 14 starts. Kahne, who has not been as strong as Gordon there, could again follow Francis' instructions and have an uneventful day and be there at the end.
The season is still young. Even given Gordon and Kahne's slow starts, there's plenty of time to meet Hendrick's lofty expectations.