Upon Further Review: Kentucky

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So when does it become time to wonder about Hendrick Motorsports?

Now? Or is it too soon?

Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway was a forgettable night for the four-car team, as Hendrick Motorsports failed to place a car in the top 10 for the second consecutive race.

That’s been part of a rough month for the organization. In the last four Sprint Cup races, Hendrick has scored two top-10 finishes with a lineup that boasts Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne.

To compare, Chip Ganassi Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing each has had twice as many top-10 finishes during the same span as Hendrick Motorsports.

So what to make of that?

Consider the last four races: Michigan and Kentucky were run with an aero package that won’t be used again this season. Another race, Sonoma, was on a road course, which isn’t represented in the playoffs. The fourth track, Daytona, is one where results can be skewed by how many cars are collected in crashes.

Then factor in that Chase Elliott was eliminated in a crash at Kentucky while battling for sixth, all four Hendrick cars were involved in the 22-car crash at Daytona, and Johnson was hurt by the late caution that put Tony Stewart in a position to win at Sonoma.

In one sense, it’s easy not to take too much from the past four races. That doesn’t mean one ignores those facts or what has happened this season.

There’s a concern because Hendrick cars are not leading laps as has been customary.

Hendrick’s four drivers have combined to lead 399 of 5,202 laps this season (7.7 percent). A key reason that total is down 54.5 percent from this time last year is the strength of the Toyota teams, but those are cars Hendrick will have to beat to capture its first title since 2013 and avoid the organization’s longest title drought in more than a decade.

Leading fewer laps shows that Hendrick cars are not having as many opportunities to win races. That can mean fewer bonus points that can help a driver advance to the second round of the playoffs. It also means fewer opportunities to win a race to make the playoffs. Elliott should make the Chase unless his team dramatically falters in the next eight races before the playoffs begin. Earnhardt also should make it, but his margin for error is thinning. Kahne might have to win a race, and he hasn’t led a lap all season.

The next three weeks should provide a clearer picture on Hendrick Motorsports. This weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway marks the final race on a Chase track before the playoffs begin.

The series then goes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track that shows off horsepower and aerodynamics — areas Hendrick typically excels — followed by Pocono Raceway, a track that also highlights horsepower and aerodynamics.

While there are questions about Hendrick Motorsports after its recent showings, what happens in the next few weeks should show how close or how far Hendrick is from its competition heading toward the Chase.

21 AND COUNTING

Brad Keselowski’s victory Saturday night was his 21st career Sprint Cup victory, and it came in his 251st career series start.

Here’s how he compares with active series champions on how many races it took them to score their 21st career Cup victory.

  1. Jimmie Johnson … 156 races
  2. Tony Stewart … 229 races
  3. Kyle Busch … 231 races
  4. Brad Keselowski … 251 races
  5. Kurt Busch … 332 races
  6. Matt Kenseth … 431 races
  7. Kevin Harvick … 442 races

FAST AND FURIOUS?

Saturday night’s race marked the 15th time since the start of last season that Kevin Harvick has led the most laps in a race.

He’s won four times.

Harvick finished ninth at Kentucky after having to pit late. In the five times he’s led the most laps in a race this season, he’s won once (Phoenix).

In the other races he led the most laps in a race this season:

  • He was collected in the 18-car crash at Dover.
  • Jimmie Johnson passed him on the overtime restart to win at Auto Club Speedway; Harvick finished second.
  • He was shuffled back on a final restart and finished sixth at Atlanta.

PIT STOPS

— Two drivers have finished in the top 10 in each of the six races on 1.5-mile tracks this season: Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick. Busch was fourth at Kentucky, while Harvick placed ninth. Kentucky was the last race on a 1.5-mile track before the playoffs begin at Chicagoland Speedway. Five of the 10 Chase races are on 1.5-mile tracks.

Josh Wise’s 24th-place finish was his best of the season. His previous best was 27th at Pocono.

— Brad Keselowski’s victory snapped Toyota’s three-race win streak on 1.5-mile tracks.

— After winning seven of the first 12 races, Joe Gibbs Racing is winless in the last six races.

Ryan Newman has finished in the top 15 in six of the last eight races. He’s climbed from 19th in the points to 12th in that span.