Team Preview: Hendrick Motorsports

Hendrick Motorsports

After putting all four of its drivers in the Chase but not able to win the Sprint Cup Series championship, Hendrick Motorsports will try for even bigger things in 2013. (Photo: Jeff Wackerlin)

MotorRacingNetwork.com counts down to the start of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and the running of the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway, with a series of team previews.  Next up is a look at Hendrick Motorsports.

After putting all four of its drivers in the Chase but not able to win the Sprint Cup Series championship, Hendrick Motorsports will try for even bigger things in 2013.

Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all found Victory Lane and qualified for the playoffs, but none were able to bring team owner Rick Hendrick an 11th Sprint Cup title.

Hendrick Motorsports"I'm still very proud of this team and the effort everyone put in," said Hendrick. "It's a special year for us for what we did accomplish even though we weren't able to win the championship."

There were many successes last season for the NASCAR powerhouse including Johnson scoring the team’s 200th career victory at Darlington in May.

Johnson's season did include five wins, 18 top fives and 24 top-10 finishes as well as four poles. He was in the middle of the race for a sixth championship until the last race of the year at Homestead, only to be derailed by a missing lug nut and subsequent mechanical failure to end the quest.

But the five-time champion remains confident in his team’s ability to bounce back from that disappointment and Johnson has his sights squarely set on a sixth title.

“I feel like through those five years there was some pressure on me that I didn’t know existed until the streak ended,” said Johnson. “Starting the 2011 season, I was aware of that and kind of a clean sheet of paper. Time to start a new streak if I can or turn a page to what’s next.”

Gordon also had a shot at winning the title after enduring an up-and-down regular season. He made the Chase but got off to a bad start that he was never able to recover from.

Hendrick MotorsportsHe did score his 87th career win at Homestead, but it wasn't enough to get a fifth title. His year was also punctuated by a feud with Clint Bowyer, which boiled over in Phoenix.

Gordon is ready to put all that behind and concentrate on building upon the positives of 2012. The four-time champion believes the change to the Gen 6 Chevy SS Sprint Cup car will be a major factor in the 24 team improving its performance.

To be frank, Gordon was not a fan of the Car of Tomorrow.

“I know we wanted to race again the next week,” said Gordon about the confidence in his team after winning the Homestead finale. “I just never got a good feel for [the Car of Tomorrow]. It was better over the last couple years, but it just never fit me well. This new car – now that’s a race car.”

Kahne's first season in the Hendrick stable got off to a frustrating start, but he was able to turn it around for a career-best fourth-place finish in the standings.

Kahne teamed with crew chief Kenny Francis to drive his way into the Chase as a wild-card entry. Though he wasn't able to mount a championship charge, he was proud of the 2012 effort.

"As a team, our greatest accomplishment was battling back from a poor start and making the Chase," Kahne said. "I have to thank Kenny for his vision and his preparation of our race cars. He and I and a lot of guys on the 5 team have been a lot of different places in recent years, but we've stuck together and, through hard work, were able to have a great season."

With a year under his belt, Kahne has even bigger aspirations for what he can accomplish as a member of the Hendrick brigade.

“I’ve been here a year now, and it’s an unbelievable place, and everyone knows the opportunity Mr. H gives us, so we want to take full advantage of that,” he said.

Earnhardt had a memorable 2012 season as for both the right and wrong reasons.

He ended a four-year victory drought with a win at Michigan in June, the site of his last previous checkered flag in 2008.

Earnhardt made the Chase and was poised to make a serious run at the title until he was unexpectedly sidelined for a pair of race.

Involved in a 24-car, last-lap crash at Talladega, Earnhardt was diagnosed with a concussion, his second in less than two months, after an August testing accident at Kansas Speedway.

He was forced out of the car to recover, ending any hope of a championship.

But Earnhardt is optimistic about what lies ahead in 2013 and ready to get back on track.

"I really enjoy being at the track and driving cars," he said. "It's been a good year, but this should be par for the course. It's been a good year, but we want to be a lot better than this. I'm not ready to stop trying to be better."

Hendrick MotorsportsAlso a fan of the new car, Earnhardt is ready for a fresh start and to come out of the gate strong in the new season.

“I can be confident going into next year with the confidence that we’re going to put good cars on the track and enjoy the races,” he said. “I think the first 10 races of the season are the most important as far as making the Chase. It’s about putting down a good foundation.

“If you end up eighth or ninth or 10th (after 10 races), that’s kind of where you wind up fighting all year long. That kind of mental battle wears on the teams and drivers that are in those positions. It’s nice to get out there and get out front early and stay there.”

Hendrick, who correctly predicted his quartet of drivers would make the Chase last year, believes all four will again make the playoffs in 2013. And the ultra-successful team owner is chomping at the bit to get things started.

“Obviously, with the new car, we’re excited to get things going,” said Hendrick. “There’s a lot of anticipation to get this season started, and I think I can speak for all four drivers when I say they’re ready to get to Daytona.”

Photos: Jeff Wackerlin

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