Long: Even in celebration, a hint of concern hangs over Hendrick Motorsports

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — On a day when Hendrick Motorsports swept the Daytona 500 front row, the main topic was not how fast its cars were, but if they could make it 500 miles without suddenly darting out of control.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun by themselves off Turn 4 in the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt did the same thing at Talladega a few months later.

Sunday, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s blue-and-white Chevrolet snapped loose and turned its nose into the side of Kurt Busch’s car 17 laps into the Clash.

“It’s something I’m very concerned about and to see it again today adds to that anxiety a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said during the FS1 broadcast of the Clash.

Johnson was perplexed. He called his Turn 4 incident “bizarre,” saying his car was fine elsewhere on the track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, sought to quell any fears by downplaying Johnson’s incident.

“I feel it’s something that we can combat fairly easily,’’ Knaus told NBC Sports. “I’m not too concerned at all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything with Hendrick specifically.’’

Although Knaus is known as one of the mentally strongest people in the garage, his Jedi mind tricks couldn’t calm some of his teammates.

Earnhardt later said that his team was looking over notes from previous years to explain the spate of spins. Pole-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson admits he’s concerned after Elliott had spun in last year’s race.

What is unnerving for some at Hendrick Motorsports is that even with three days of practice before the Daytona 500, they won’t see enough cars on track to reliably ensure the car’s balance is correct.

With the qualifying races in cooler conditions at night, it doesn’t provide as good a gauge, especially with warm temperatures and a slick track forecasted for the Daytona 500.

The best time to prepare for those conditions is to practice during the day, but Earnhardt and Gustafson admit that won’t be helpful because many teams limit how much they run to avoid getting collected in a wreck and having to go to a backup car. Packs will be small.

“If you don’t have 20 cars (practicing together), you’re probably not going to get a great read on what your car is going to do,’’ Gustafson said. “You need to have 20 cars for more than five, six, seven laps at a time.’’

That’s critical because tires are starting to play a more important role. The track’s surface is wearing and that makes handling more important.

Without those large packs in practice, teams will have to rely on simulation and other engineering tools.

Even with those resources, Turn 4 has become the Bermuda Triangle for Hendrick Motorsports, a team which has one victory in the last eight restrictor-plate races.

“That exit of Turn 4 is tough,’’ Elliott told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely easy to get in a bad way and get bound up or get in a bad aero situation up off 4, and the balance is starting to become a factor here again, which is good news I think for the folks who sit up in those bleachers and the people who watch on TV.’’

Johnson and Knaus both speculated that track position played a role in the No. 48 car’s wayward actions. Johnson fell back in the pack before losing control of his car.

“I have to assume it’s relative to the height of the rear spoiler,’’ Johnson said. “When there’s less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it’s really easy to get the pressure off it and then the back just rotates around.’’

So what will have to be done?

“We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer,’’ he said.

If it was that easy, there wouldn’t be the concern for some at Hendrick Motorsports even as Elliott celebrated his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole and Earnhardt relished his return by starting next to his teammate.

Of course, those cars had run alone on the track Sunday. It’s when they’re around other cars that raises questions.

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