News & Media

Hendrick cars look for big rebound in Phoenix

March 03, 2012, Joe Menzer,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Outside of Junior's second-place run, not a lot to love about Speedweeks for HMS

It was a strange Speedweeks for Hendrick Motorsports.

In the end, amid what driver Jeff Gordon called "the carnage" of eight damaged or completely ruined race cars, it was left to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to carry the banner of HMS. And he and his No. 88 Chevrolet race team were left to do it alone.

"I think that their finish at Daytona definitely adds a little to that, so his confidence I think is good and strong right now -- especially after coming off of a decent year last year. "


They did well, too, with Earnhardt coming home in second behind Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. Earnhardt also finished second in his Gatorade Duel that preceded the 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

So while his usually stout Hendrick Motorsports teammates were struggling to keep their cars on the track, Earnhardt experienced a serenity of sorts that has often escaped him in recent seasons.

"It was weird," Earnhardt said from Phoenix International Raceway, where qualifying was held Saturday for this Sunday's Subway Fresh Fit 500. "That was one of the calmest, most stress-free [Speedweeks] I've ever been a part of. We didn't do a lot of practicing, we didn't really put ourselves through a lot of work. We just kind of kept the car together and got through the races in one piece. It was amazing to me how low stress it was."

His teammates could not say the same. The trouble started when Jeff Gordon's No. 24 was collected in an accident in practice for the Bud Shootout. One day later, Gordon's car ended up getting flipped in a horrific accident in the Shootout itself.

The Hendrick troubles didn't slow there. Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevy also suffered damage during the Shootout and Kasey Kahne finished three laps down in that race because of damage to his No. 5 Chevy. Then Kahne wrecked during a Daytona 500 practice session, killing another car.

In the 500 race itself, Johnson got taken out in a wreck after completing just one lap and the engine blew in Gordon's car on Lap 81 of what turned out to be a 202-lap event -- taking out two more HMS cars. Kahne got caught up in an accident on Lap 189 that completed the carnage and brought the final total of damaged or totally ruined Hendrick race cars to eight for all of Speedweeks.

"I've never seen so much equipment torn up as what we saw this last [Speedweeks] at Daytona. It was incredible," Gordon said. "That's just the tight racing, competitiveness, how easy it is to make a little mistake and cause a lot of carnage and take you out of a race."

Then there was Earnhardt. He put nary a scratch on his No. 88 Chevy through the entire Speedweeks and turned heads with his runner-up finish to race winner Matt Kenseth in the 500.

"You always know that Junior is going to be strong at Daytona, so it was great to see him finish [second]," Gordon said. "It was unfortunate that it was him up against the two Roush [Fenway Racing] Fords there because he didn't have a lot of support there to have a chance at beating those guys at the end.

"I think really even as strong as [those Fords] were, I think that our cars were strong enough to battle with those guys. It would have been nice to be up there to give him some more support and be able to work together to try to win that race. It was still a great effort by him."

Earnhardt said he just isn't sure what it means for the bigger picture that is a 36-race schedule. He said he'll know more after this weekend at PIR, a 1-mile track where he won twice before it was recently reconfigured.

"Yeah, Daytona really doesn't show what we're capable of," said Earnhardt, whose seventh-place finish in the final point standings last year was his highest since 2006. "We ran good and that's good for our confidence. But we'll see how we can make that work for us the next couple of weeks. I'd like to win here. I've won some races here at Phoenix."

If practice times mean anything, Earnhardt was left with a mixed bag following Friday's only two Cup practices. He improved in the second and final practice, with his fastest lap of 137.636 miles per hour ranking 11th on the speed chart [and still only third among the Hendrick drivers, with Gordon fifth and Johnson seventh]. But he was the slowest of all the Hendrick drivers in the first practice, when he ranked just 31st on the chart.

Gordon said it was neat to see Earnhardt come so close to winning in Daytona. He admitted he would like to see him close the deal completely soon -- not just for Earnhardt's own sake but for the overall good of the sport.

"I think that obviously being as popular as he is and the attention being on him win or lose, when he wins it's a positive for the sport," Gordon said. "But I don't see his attitude being any different than any other year. He comes into every season pumped up and excited and optimistic just like everyone else.

"I think that their finish at Daytona definitely adds a little to that, so his confidence I think is good and strong right now -- especially after coming off of a decent year last year. I think right now if you look at what happened last year with the Chase and the championship and all the excitement that happened in Daytona -- Junior finishing second and the great battle, Danica [Patrick], the great ball of flames, it all got a lot of attention. There's a lot of momentum with the sport right now. Whatever is going to keep that momentum going, I'm all for it. I hope it's a win from the 24 car that can keep it going, but if it's the 88 and 24 then OK, I'll take that, too."