Hendrick Motorsports needs to win like it’s 1994.
That’s saying a lot for the team with 242 Sprint Cup victories and 11 titles.
Entering Sunday’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 400, Hendrick finds itself in a spot it hasn’t experienced since 1994, back before any of those championships existed. Then, with Jeff Gordon in his second season in Sprint Cup, Terry Labonte ended a 22 race winless streak with a victory at North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track that left the schedule after 1996.
In the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup this weekend, Hendrick will be trying to avoid reaching 22 races since its last win.
Sitting at 21 races, the streak is the fourth longest in Hendrick’s history. A Hendrick car hasn’t visited victory lane since Jimmie Johnson did so at Auto Club Speedway in March. Johnson’s two wins this season are HMS’ only victories.
Now Johnson looks to jump start his postseason with a win at a track he’s never won at in the Sprint Cup Series.
Yes, there are tracks that Johnson – who has 77 Cup victories – hasn’t conquered. Chicago is one of four. The others are Watkins Glen, Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Kentucky Speedway.
Outside of a win in the inaugural Xfinity race at Chicago in 2001, Johnson’s lack of luck at the 1.5-mile track stands out. Johnson’s driver rating at the track since 2005 – 114.1 – is the best in the series. The next closest is Kyle Busch at 106.1.
Driver rating is calculated by wins, top-15 finishes, average running position while on the lead lap, average speed under green, fastest lap, most laps led and lead-lap finishes.
“We’ve been close at Chicago a few times but ended up giving them away,” Johnson said in a press release.
The No. 48 has made 14 starts at Chicagoland, with Johnson earning seven top fives. Three of them were runner-up finishes. With two poles, Johnson has an average start of 5.8 since 2005 with an average mid-race running spot of 4.5. But when it comes to closing time, his average result is 11th.
In the last 11 races, Johnson even leads the series in laps led at Chicago with 519. Busch has the second most with 408.
Even a top-five finish could be considered a small victory for Johnson, who is the all-time leader in wins at 1.5-mile tracks. Johnson’s last top five came in the Brickyard 400, seven races ago.
While a win would be huge for Johnson and Hendrick to start off the Chase – the No. 48 failed to advance out of the first round in 2015 – it would mean even more for his crew chief, Chad Knaus.
“I’ve wanted to win there so bad for Chad since it’s his hometown track,” said Johnson.
Knaus was born and raised in Rockford, Illinois, roughly 106 miles north of Joliet, where the track is located. Knaus competed in Late Model Stock cars at Rockford Speedway with his father, John, and graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Rockford.
“For the next ten weeks, we are in championship focus and we learned a lot last year from this format and we need to be there at the cutoffs and also to be there at the end at Homestead,” said Johnson. “We need to run well every week. There is a lot of effort going on to make this chase for our seventh championship.”
If for some reason Johnson and company don’t win again in 2016, his two wins would equal his career low set in 2011.
But Johnson may not even be Hendrick’s best shot at a Chicago win. Of the team’s four drivers competing this weekend – Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman (subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.) – Elliott is the only driver with a win at Chicago in the last decade.
Elliott won at Chicago during his 2014 championship run in the Xfinity Series. It was his third and final win of that season.