News & Media


Hendrick's 'Fantastic Four' up for challenge

September 15, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Teammates will help one another, share data until Chase winds down

JOLIET, Ill. -- The No. 24 team of driver Jeff Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson is so fired up about making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Gordon is "bringing back the 'stache" and Gustafson has shaved his head.

So what should team owner Rick Hendrick do? He has placed all four of his Hendrick Motorsports teams in the Chase, making up one-third of the 12-driver field that will determine this year's Cup champion.

""We've raced for championships before in the past with teammates. I think we've really raised the bar on one another and drawn the best out of one another. If I can't win it, I want one of my teammates to."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

Joining Gordon in the Chase are teammates Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. Together, they combined to win six races -- all coming during a stretch of 11 events from the end of May to the beginning of August.

To a man, the "Fantastic Four" drivers all said it was a common goal shared between them to make the Chase. Gordon was the last one in, grabbing the second and final wild-card spot in dramatic fashion. He made it thanks to his unlikely charge from 27th with an ill-handling race car in the middle of the final regular-season race at Richmond all the way to second place by its end.

"Rick Hendrick sets out at the beginning of the year with a goal of getting all four teams in the Chase," Gordon said. "I know we're all competitive teams. I didn't feel like we were going to be the one on the outside looking in, fighting and scrapping to get in on the very last race. I just didn't think that.

"I really didn't want to get that phone call from Rick with him saying, 'Gee, I'm really sorry it didn't work out, buddy. We need to fix this and we need to fix that.' Instead, it was, 'That's awesome; that's great; you're the man!' "

As the drivers practiced Friday at Chicagoland Speedway to prepare for this Sunday's Chase opener in the GEICO 400, each assessed his own chances of taking the next step to claim the 2012 championship and how working together -- or not -- might affect said chances.

Five-time looks for sixth

Johnson, seeded second behind only Denny Hamlin, owns the most victories of the Hendrick drivers with three and is seeking his sixth title after having his string of five consecutive championship runs snapped by Tony Stewart last season.

He said if he can't win it, he certainly will help one of his teammates accomplish the task. He also said he expects all four teams to continue working together, at least to a point, leading up to the actual races -- when it's more likely to be every man for himself.

"We've raced for championships before in the past with teammates," Johnson said. "I think we've really raised the bar on one another and drawn the best out of one another.

"If I can't win it, I want one of my teammates to. Our company works so hard to put awesome race cars on the track for us. I want the championship to be there."

He also said that he believes his teammates will continue to work together. He said after every practice and every race, crew chiefs and engineers dump all information in a database that all teams can draw from.

"Maybe those guys feel differently; maybe I just instinctively did something different over the five years of racing with my teammates for championships. But I don't see it being a lot different and so much of that is due to the fact that the database is there with everything," Johnson said. "I push the button in the car and what I say gets entered in. Every adjustment we make is entered in. That has always been there. It is about the crew chiefs and the engineers to dig through that and find what might work for their race car."

Junior!

Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters the Chase as the seventh seed, but with what he and others insist is his best chance to race for a championship in years. He was consistent enough over the first 26 races to be second in the point standings prior to them being re-set for the Chase.

"I'm pretty confident," he said. "I think we've worked on building our confidence up and we've got good reason to be confident. I've enjoyed the season and I've enjoyed what we've done so far, and hopefully when we get to [the season's last race at] Homestead I'll still be happy."

"So I feel pretty good about it, but I don't want to overstate it. There's some good competition in the Chase, and those guys are all going to do their best to win it as well. No matter who wins it this year, they're going to have earned it. ... One guy doesn't stand out above the rest -- and if you had to make odds, I'd say everybody's odds are pretty even."

That includes all his teammates. But the difference this year is that Earnhardt includes himself in the group that could win it all. Last year, even though he made the Chase, he didn't necessarily feel that way.

"I don't know if we felt we were in the conversation last year," he said. "We hadn't done much throughout the season to put ourselves in the conversation last year. We were just kind of a steady team that put enough points together to get in. But this year, we've run well enough -- I mean, we were second in points going into Richmond and I think that sort of speaks for itself."

And what would a Cup championship mean for Earnhardt, who has two Nationwide Series titles and has won 19 Cup races in his career, including one this year at Michigan?

"It would just cap off a career that's had good success but is missing that one piece to the puzzle," Earnhardt said.

The new kid

Kasey Kahne enters the Chase as the 11th seed, the first of the pair of wild cards to earn a berth by virtue of his two race victories this season. He will not be able to carry over any bonus points from those wins into the Chase because early-season struggles prevented him from finishing inside the top 10 in points after the first 26 races.

But he does enter with just as much confidence about winning it all as any of his teammates -- or anyone else, for that matter.

"I think we've come a long way from where we're at, and we're going into these final 10 races with our cars really fast and our team as strong as it's been all season long," Kahne said. "We've definitely come a long ways together."

This is Kahne's first season with Hendrick, and after the slow start it has unfolded almost exactly as he believed it would. He also noted that his last three race wins, dating back to late last season, have come at three Chase tracks in New Hampshire, Charlotte and Phoenix, which he said could be an advantage.

"One of the reasons I wanted to go to Hendrick Motorsports was because I wanted to work closely with Jeff, and work closely with Jimmie, and listening to Dale and seeing what they say about their cars, and what adjustments they like," Kahne said. "Next to them on the race track, I haven't felt like I've raced them any different or they've raced me any different than in the past when we weren't teammates. So I feel like things have really been going good. I don't see what it would change, because when you're on the race track, it's an individual deal. You're doing what's best for yourself."

"I feel like it'll be the same thing in the Chase. We'll try to get better together. And once we're on the track, we're going to try to beat each other. You want to outdo the other guy. But getting to that point, we first as a group want to make sure we're all doing what we can to outdo the rest of the field."

Four-time going old-time

That leaves Gordon, perhaps the happiest 12th seed to ever make the Chase. He owns four championships but hasn't won one since 2001, so he's growing the mustache in an attempt to have some fun, keep it loose -- and hopefully reach back in time for a little old magic.

"'If we make this Chase, I'm bringing back the 'stache.'"

--JEFF GORDON

"It's good to be in the Chase and sportin' the 'stache, so here we go," he joked.

Asked if he thought the 1990s-era mustache was "cool or something," Gordon laughed heartily.

"Oh no. Trust me, it has nothing to do with being cool," Gordon said. "I don't remember the exact conversation, but we were in the lounge talking about a race and maybe we were on Twitter or something, but someone brought up something about the old mustache. And I threw it out there. I said, 'Listen, if we make this Chase, I'm bringing back the 'stache.' And [members of the 24 team] were all like, 'Yeah, yeah! Do it!'

"I have fans all the time -- on Twitter, off Twitter -- and fellow competitors messing with me and saying, 'Where's that 'stache? Bring back that 'stache.' And I guarantee you it's not because it was cool. But I made the statement and I'm a man of my word, so that's where it's coming from. And Alan said he'd shave his head, so he shaved his head as well. So we're committed."

They also expect to be a factor, based on the way they finished the regular season. He's finished in the top six in nine of the last 12 races, including one win at Pocono as well as a third and two seconds in his last three.

"You can never count out Jimmie. Those guys have had a good year and have won five championships. So you know he's going to be tough, he and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and that whole team," Gordon said. "Junior's team has had a really solid year. They've stepped it up to a level that people didn't expect, and it's great. Kasey, he's kind of the unknown because they've been hit-or-miss this year. But Kasey's a great driver and Kenny [Francis] is a great crew chief.

"We've shown, sporadically, at times this year that we can be a fast race car. We've shown it more consistently over these last three weeks, that we can run out front. So I would say all four of us have legitimate shots."

Gordon did warn that if it gets down to the final few races and he's in a head-to-head battle with his teammates in the Chase, his team "might not be as much of an open book" in team meetings as they've been to this point in the season. There is a limit to this teammate stuff, after all.

"We're going to continue to share the information going through this Chase," Gordon said. "The downside is that we're probably going to be battling each other for wins and for the championship before this thing is over. When that happens, you can't help the competitive nature from coming out -- and that information-sharing stream is going to get challenged."