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Great expectations remain for Hendrick drivers

January 23, 2013, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com

Hendrick offers no challenges, but drivers aware of stakes

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Wednesday afternoon session of the 2013 Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway at Hendrick Motorsports saw four confident drivers take the stage to address the media, sporting a combined nine Sprint Cup titles between them.

The most self-assured? Team owner Rick Hendrick, planted right in the middle.

After making the claim at last year’s event that he’d have four cars in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- and seeing his declaration come through -- Hendrick emerged from the 2012 season a proud owner, but knows there’s more work to be done between Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne.

“As a whole, we’re more confident this year and we feel we have a shot to win this year. We’re as prepared as we’ve ever been,” Hendrick said. “(Last year), we fumbled the ball in the closing minutes of the game. We want to get back to the Super Bowl.”

Between the notion that Hendrick has more faith in his drivers this season, and his hunger to bring the franchise its first Sprint Cup championship since Johnson’s five consecutive titles from 2006-10, there is an added pressure to his team that other organizations might not encounter.

“Last year, he kind of shocked all of us in throwing down the gauntlet by saying all four cars would be in the Chase and that was a lot of pressure,” Gordon said. “Rick typically in the past is the guy that really didn’t make those kinds of demands, but when Rick asks for something, we all try to achieve it because he’s the kind of guy that you ask him for something, he’s going to make it happen.”

Certainly the burden on Gordon, who hasn’t had a Cup title to call his own in more than a decade (2001), weighs heavier than it might on Johnson.

“It doesn’t (add any extra pressure), because we feel (that we’ll have four cars in the Chase) and we believe that,” said Johnson, who finished third in the Cup standings in 2012. “Last year, when he went on the record in front of everybody and said that, that was a lot of pressure. I was waiting for him to drop the hammer this year and I think a couple of us were smiling on the stage wondering what he was going to say, but he let us off the hook there. I’m sure we’ll hear about it all year long in our meetings, and that’s great. You know we love to have that; it’s a kick in the pants to get things going.”

It was a bit of a different story for Johnson last season, however, as he acknowledged that there was “a pressure on me that I didn’t know existed until the streak ended.” Now he says he’s got a “clear mind” and he isn’t worried about the streak anymore.

Perhaps the forgotten man among the four heavyweight Hendrick drivers, Kahne figures to take the added pressure that comes with competing alongside the sport’s biggest stars to improve upon his best-ever Cup finish (fourth) and make himself a household name in his second season with the organization.

“I don't think we were far off,” Kahne said. “But if we can keep that same drive and same competitiveness that we've had, hopefully we can get right back in that same situation and make a strong run at a championship this season.”

One thing that appears to be a constant throughout the team is the shared excitement in the Generation-6 car, best illustrated by Gordon’s one-liner of “Now, that’s a race car.”

When the comparison was given to Johnson that the Car of Tomorrow was like a suit that he took off the rack and it fit just right, Gordon quipped that his suit was about five sizes too big. Despite that previous perfect fit, Johnson is embracing the change.

“All in all, it’s a different animal,” he said. “There’s a lot more downforce and the aerodynamics are there. It’s a lot more forgiving (than the Car of Tomorrow).”

Earnhardt Jr., who hopes the change in body style gives him the edge to finish in the top 10 in the final points standings for just the second time in his sixth year with Hendrick, feels there’s going to be a learning curve to the Gen-6 car and admitted his crash at the Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona earlier this month was the most embarrassed he has ever been on a race track.

When the season wraps up in November and the winner of the Sprint Cup Series is hoisting the trophy over his head in celebration, don’t be surprised if it’s one of these four drivers, with the other three right behind him in the standings.

Just like Rick Hendrick drew it up.