Team Preview: Hendrick Motorsports

Hendrick Motorsports

The organization’s next Cup Series victory in a points-paying race will be the 200th for Hendrick Motorsports. (Photo: Getty Images)

Share: counts down to the start of the NASCAR portion of Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway with a series of team previews. Next up is a look at Hendrick Motorsports.

Standing on the threshold of a milestone victory and with a new face in its 2012 driver lineup, Hendrick Motorsports is ready to roll into its 29th NASCAR season.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, with a combined nine Cup Series championships between them, return to the fold along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kasey Kahne replaces Mark Martin behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

And all four are chasing a piece of stock car history. The organization’s next Cup Series victory in a points-paying race will be the 200th for Hendrick Motorsports. Petty Enterprises is the only other team in NASCAR’s 63-year history to reach that milestone, topping the all-time list with 268 victories.

“When I look through all the pictures and I remember the celebrations, I can remember vividly that I didn’t know if I’d ever win one race,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “When you say you’ve won a race in the Cup Series, you’ve accomplished something. But when you think about 200 wins, it’s unbelievable.”

Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion, is responsible for 85 of those victories, including Hendrick Motorsports’ 100th win in June 2001 at Michigan International Speedway.

“To be able to do that meant a lot to me personally,” Gordon said. “The speed at which the next 99 happened is pretty incredible. You look at what Jimmie Johnson has brought to our organization and you look at all the other drivers who have contributed … it has been amazing.”

In 2012, Gordon is celebrating the 20-year anniversary of long-time sponsor DuPont – which has been with him since his Hendrick debut in 1992. He’s coming off a solid 2011 campaign in which he qualified for the Chase as the No. 3 seed. Gordon faded to eighth in the final standings, ending the year with three wins.

His total of 85 Cup Series victories leaves Gordon third on the all-time list, behind only Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105).

As for Johnson, forgive him if Speedweeks feels a little strange this year. It’s the first time since 2006 he’ll arrive at Daytona as something other than defending champion. Ironically, it was Tony Stewart who carried that designation then … just as he does in 2012.

Johnson also qualified for the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, maintaining his status as the only driver who’s participated in all eight title series since the format was first introduced in 2004.

He ended the year sixth in points, 99 behind Stewart. Johnson won twice, including the Chase race at Kansas Speedway in October that left Hendrick Motorsports at the doorstep of win No. 200.

Earnhardt also made the 2011 Chase, making Hendrick the only team with three entries for the post-season. However, “Junior” was unable to snap his long winless streak that has now reached 129 races dating back to Michigan in June 2008.

Earnhardt heads into Speedweeks this year attempting to become the first driver to win back-to-back Daytona 500 poles since Ken Schrader put three straight together from 1988-90. Hendrick Motorsports has led qualifying for “The Great American Race” two years in a row and three of the last four, with Mark Martin No. 1 in 2010.

Martin is gone from the No. 5 Chevrolet, replaced by Kahne – who can’t wait to get the new season rolling.

“The Daytona test (last month) was the first time I started to feel like I was part of the team and it’s been really good,” said Kahne, who finished 14th in points last season driving for Red Bull Racing.

Kahne underwent successful outpatient knee surgery on Feb. 10 and has been pronounced ready for the season. After experiencing swelling in his left knee, an MRI revealed a torn meniscus. The common arthroscopic procedure was done in Charlotte, N.C., leaving the 31-year-old driver to shift his focus back to his new surroundings.

“It’s been everything I expected up to this point,” Kahne said. “I have four years here that I know are going to be stable and competitive, with great people and a great team around me.”

The optimism of the four Hendrick drivers heading into the 2012 season has found its way into the top tier of the organization, as well.

“I can’t remember ever going into a year with four teams as strong as we have now,” said Hendrick.

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