‘When it rains, it pours’: Hendrick Motorsports working through a turbulent season

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INDIANAPOLIS – The team hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in three consecutive Sprint Cup races (for the first time in nearly 16 years). One of its star drivers will miss the second of at least three straight races with a possible concussion. And none of its four Chevrolets will start in the top 10 in Sunday’s Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The last time that happened was 2001 … when Hendrick Motorsports won the Brickyard 400 with Jeff Gordon (who started 27th).

If there’s a good omen or a silver lining – and the most successful team in NASCAR history could use either lately – that might be as good as any for Rick Hendrick, who has endured his share of ups and downs in 32 years of team ownership.

“It seems like when it rains, it pours,” he said Friday. “I’ve been doing this long enough that you can’t stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we’ve made a lot of improvements. I think we’ll see some, hopefully, this weekend. But you never like having a curveball.”

The curveball at Indy is the absence of Earnhardt, who has been sidelined since last week with concussion-like symptoms. His No. 88 Chevrolet will be driven at Indy and next week at Pocono Raceway by Gordon, who temporarily has ended an eight-month retirement.

But the driver swap is only the latest of many worries recently for Hendrick, which has slipped to second in class this season among Chevrolet teams behind Stewart-Haas Racing, has a shop brimming with wrecked cars (“Our place looks like a salvage yard,” Hendrick jokes) and has been unusually error-prone over the summer.

That’s the bad news.

The encouraging news is that everybody just stepped up and is working harder,” Hendrick said. “We’re determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It’s kind of our ‘refuse to lose’ belief. But we didn’t need this, for sure.”

Into the breach steps the man who once made “Refuse to Lose” a motto synonymous with winning championships.

Though Gordon has been shaking off the rust this weekend, the four-time series champion is a record five-time winner at the Brickyard who could help troubleshoot where Hendrick’s Chevrolets are missing. The team’s top Indy qualifier Saturday was Jimmie Johnson, whose 13th starting position marked the third time this season that the team failed to advance a car to the final round of qualifying.

“The sharpness has just been off of the Hendrick cars,” NBCSN analyst Ray Evernham, who won three titles as Gordon’s crew chief, said on NASCAR America this past week. “It’ll be good to get Jeff back in one of the cars and give some of his input to that, to the engineering staff as well.”

Johnson said a “fresh set of eyes” might help in evaluating the strength of Hendrick’s cars and engines, especially with Gordon’s experience in the Fox Sports booth in the first 16 races.

“Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle,” Johnson said. “I know he’s formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure.”

The Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing/Furniture Row Racing and the Fords of Team Penske have been the standard bearers since Johnson’s March 20 victory at Auto Club Speedway, combining to win 11 of the past 13 races.

“For sure, we’ve been chasing them for a while,” Johnson said Sunday in New Hampshire after finishing 12th. “We brought some new ideas here and thought that we closed the gap. But we got a whole new fleet of cars we’re rolling out, and a lot of stuff is starting to come out of the production line right now. We definitely feel like we’re behind trying to catch up.”

Is there time to catch up before the playoffs begin in seven races?

“You never know,” he said. “I wish this was two to three months ago even yet because it just takes a while to get stuff going. A win can turn things around and get momentum moving in the right direction.

“And then the Chase is so different the way it is now. There’s still time, but we need to get moving.”

The best measuring stick for its improvement might be SHR, which will move to Ford next year after getting chassis and engines since well before Tony Stewart joined the team as a co-owner in 2009.

Stewart, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick each have won to qualify for the playoffs while Hendrick’s only winner this year is Johnson.

While the impending departure of SHR’s four cars will leave a multimillion-dollar void in Hendrick’s budget to be filled through new customers, the move already might be having a competitive impact.

The teams aren’t sharing the same setup data as under a previously stronger technical alliance (and with SHR already running some of its new chassis, it wouldn’t be helpful anyway). The lessened cooperation might be hurting both teams, but it seems to be having a more negative impact on Hendrick.

“Eight teams are better than four every day,” said Rodney Childers, the SHR crew chief for Harvick. “A lot of times you’re not going to use everything that you get from each other, but at least you can glance over and say, ‘Well these guys have this air pressure, and these guys have this setup, and these guys learn this at the wind tunnel,’ and both teams fed off each other for so many years.

“When you split that apart, it’s a huge loss for all of us. Not only them but for us. (Hendrick is) a great company. They’ve got great people over there. I think they’ll be just fine. It’s just this first year of not sharing anything together has been hard on both teams, I believe.”

Even despite the weaker results, some are less than convinced about any sign of demise for an organization that has 242 Sprint Cup wins and a record 15 NASCAR championships (11 in Cup)

After winning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth slightly scoffed at the notion that Hendrick was on a tier below Team Penske, Joe Gibbs Racing, and SHR.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Kenseth said. “It’s hard for me to ever feel bad for Hendrick. They’ve won a lot of championships, a lot of races, ever since I’ve been in the sport for sure. We’ve finished second to them a few times in the championship. They’ve been fast and you’ll definitely have to get through those guys to try to win a race or a championship.”

While Hendrick’s cars seem to have been faster lately, things invariably have gone wrong. At Daytona International Speedway, Johnson, Earnhardt, and Chase Elliott all were involved in the same wreck. At Kentucky Speedway, Johnson and Elliott crashed again.

Last week at New Hampshire, Johnson started on the pole position but placed 12th after sliding through his pit stall. After running well throughout the race in place of Earnhardt, Alex Bowman suffered a flat tire and smacked the wall, just moments before Elliott also caught a flat.

“Last week is kind of a good example of some of the difficulties we’ve had,” Johnson said. “We had competitive cars all running in the top 11, and in one corner, we lose two of them.

“It’s been tough, but I think we have a good foundation to build from. We have respectable finishes in our cars, but nobody wants to be a decent finisher or a respectable finisher. … I guess we’re tired of looking (at) the silver lining, and I’ve lost a bunch of cars here recently. I’ve been in the wall a bunch. So, we’ve got to quit that.”

The six-time series champion has made some uncharacteristic errors recently, wrecking two cars (in practice and the race) at Kentucky Speedway. At New Hampshire, he slid his No. 48 Chevrolet through the pits on his final stop, negating a potential top five or 10.

Johnson said the mistakes are because he and the Hendrick teams are pressing.

“I’ve been at 110 percent, and you make too many mistakes there,” he said. “And I think our team has, too. So, that’s one thing we have recognized, and we’re going to really try to dial back and make sure that we run where we should. If we have a fifth-place car that week, let’s be sure that we at least finish fifth.”

Gordon, who remains an equity partner in Hendrick, said it’s an approach that has worked for the competition.

“When Hendrick Motorsports is dominating this series, that highly motivates your competition; and they go to work,” Gordon said. “And sometimes you get torn down while you’re getting your butt kicked. But you start to find a way to get yourself better than you were before and hopefully get yourself in position.

“With the resources and the type of people that Hendrick Motorsports has, it’s sort of what’s happening to us right now. We’re being highly motivated by other organizations and teams that are out there and are getting great results. But we’re too good of an organization not to find a way to only make ourselves better and stronger and our cars faster to get back to that place.”