Hendrick takes control of Michigan
June 15, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- In 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won at least five straight races in two different spans, with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears combining for wins from Phoenix to Charlotte early in the season and Gordon or Johnson finding Victory Lane in six straight events during that season's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
The organization won a franchise-best 18 races that year -- exactly half of the series' events -- and Johnson collected his second of five straight Sprint Cup Series titles.
Shockingly, Hendrick might be even stronger in 2014.
Johnson's victory at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday -- his first in 25 attempts at the track, a sign that Johnson is capable of doing more this year than in years past -- marked the third time the organization has won five straight races, starting with Gordon's Kansas win in early May, then seeing Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. combine for the next four at Charlotte, Dover, Pocono and Michigan. That gives HMS six race victories on the season -- nine if you want to count the three that Stewart-Haas Racing has racked up with Hendrick engines under the hood -- with Earnhardt's marquee Daytona 500 victory kicking off the season.
Sunday's race saw all four drivers in the Hendrick stable finish in the top seven with at least one lap led for the first time this year. It now seems unfathomable that earlier this season the team went nine races without a victory, because it feels like they could win every week from here on out.
"To keep the streak going, get five, that's great," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "I think we were a little off early in the year, and we've been kind of clicking here lately … all the crew chiefs and drivers (are) working hard, working together, the engine shop, chassis shop. Everybody is really putting out a lot of effort right now, and it's paying off."
Everything is running on all cylinders for the Concord, North Carolina shop -- both literally and figuratively -- so you'd think they'd be satisfied. That mindset isn't how the team got to be so successful, however. In their eyes, there's always room for improvement.
"I think if you go back and look starting at Daytona, the engine shop and the chassis shop, the way that the Hendrick Motorsports affiliated teams and team itself have performed has been pretty impressive as a whole," said No. 48 crew chief Chad Knaus. "The chassis shop, we know we build chassis for a lot of the other competitors, as well, and those cars have run very, very well. The teams that have run with our engines have run very, very well, as well. It's been pretty awesome, and I couldn't be prouder of the guys in the 48/88 shop to be able to win four races in a row. I think that speaks volumes about how well both of our race cars are running out of that one team, out of that one building.
"The fact of the matter is I think we've got to be a little bit better. Last week we were a whisker away from losing that one. This weekend maybe we were one pit call away from not winning this one. We've got to continue to improve our product so by the time we get to the Chase we're where we need to be."
That doesn't mean the organization doesn’t know how to enjoy itself when these wins do some in bunches, however, especially if the copious amounts of flying confetti and sprayed champagne in Victory Lane are any indication.
They also aren't taking their success for granted.
"The success that we've had as a team, kind of hitting our stride and getting to Victory Lane three times in the last four weeks, our teammates and their success, the company, you look at our engines in our cars and what they're able to do, Rick gives us all the tools to go out there and do our jobs," Johnson said. "To have everything so fast and so good, you want it to last forever. We know that it won't, but it's just a good time to sit back and reflect and enjoy it.
"We are getting stronger as the No. 48 -- there is no doubt about that. I think it is obvious that Hendrick Motorsports produces fast race cars. They build fast engines. It doesn't matter if it is Stewart-Haas or the Hendrick organization. We're winning a lot of races, and running up front. So, we just have to do the best that we can to get stronger as the Chase gets closer, and make sure we are on our game when the Chase gets here."
Kahne has yet to fully join the party, sitting winless in 19th place in the standings. That said, it's looking he could just be casually late as the 5 team has been making serious gains in recent weeks and should see things start to pick up soon.
The 34-year-old notched two wins in each of his first two seasons with Hendrick, so it's unlikely he'll spend 2014 winless. Being part of the premier organization in the sport certainly doesn't hurt his chances.
"We're super strong. Cars are awesome," said Kahne, who picked up his second top-five finish of the season at Michigan. "Even the other cars with the Hendrick engines, with the help from HMS and everybody working together, we're really strong and it's nice to be part of that. I'm glad we hit on it today and ran much better than what we have been.
"We've had strength in all the tracks we've been at lately, we just haven't ran worth a (expletive). Hopefully we get all that stuff better. Today was nice and hopefully we can build on it and just keep getting better as a team."
All of their success isn't lost on Hendrick's direct competitors, either. Even an organization like Team Penske, which has started one of its two cars on the front row in all but three races thanks to being lightyears ahead of everyone else in terms of grasping the new qualifying format, feels like it's playing catchup when it comes to engine development.
"The Hendrick cars are probably the best anywhere it takes power to run, and these tracks are certainly one of those," said Penske driver and 2012 champion Brad Keselowski. "It's pretty obvious the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else. Usually, that's not something you catch up with in one season as far ahead as they are right now. They're probably a full season ahead of everyone, so we’ve got work to do to get there."
The series now shifts to Sonoma Raceway, a road course where we'll sometimes see surprise winners -- like Martin Truex Jr. in 2013 -- but HMS has to like their chances. Out of the 13 wins spread across the active roster, seven of them belong to Hendrick drivers.
It's safe to assume that the win streak will be snapped at some point, but if we've learned anything through the season's first 15 races, it's clear Hendrick Motorsports is in a class unto itself in 2014.