|"They're a full season ahead."|
As NASCAR heads into its annual summer stretch, Hendrick Motorsports is on a roll. With five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victories, including three by six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, if you’re not working with HMS, you’re working at a disadvantage.
In the aftermath of another beat down Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Hendrick’s performance edge has the competition worried – maybe even panicked – about what lies ahead.
"It's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else," said former series champion Brad Keselowski, after chasing Johnson and HMS-affiliated Kevin Harvick to the checkered flag in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400. "As far ahead as they are right now, they're probably a full season ahead of everyone.”
Read that again. One full season ahead of everyone. Twelve long months of catchup ball before anyone can realistically hope to upset Hendrick’s apple cart.
Keselowski was strong Sunday, but had little for Johnson or Harvick at the end. And in truth, his third-place finish was one of the few bright spots for anyone not wheeling a Chevrolet SS. Ford Motor Company’s longstanding stranglehold on Michigan’s Victory Lane was broken with authority Sunday, with Keselowski and Team Penske teammate Joey Logano the only Fords in the Top-10. Rival Toyota fared even worse, with only Clint Bowyer claiming a spot (the final one) in the Top-10.
|Get used to this sight...|
After decades of domination in the Irish Hills, Roush Fenway Racing was struggled mightily Sunday. Jack Roush failed to claim a Top-10 finish at his home track for the first time in 14 years, with Greg Biffle finishing 20th, Carl Edwards 23rd and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 27th. Joe Gibbs Racing was only marginally better, managing a 14th-place finish from Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin’s 29th and a 41st from Kyle Busch. Busch was hindered by right-rear hub issues, but Kenseth and Hamlin were just plain slow and never a factor for the win.
"We just don't have it," admitted Kenseth, who remains winless this season after claiming seven checkered flags a year ago. "I don't know how else to explain it. We just can't fix it on pit road (and) we can't get close enough (to) the leaders to be able to hang on to a position, even when the team gives it to me (with a fast pit stop)."
With Hendrick performing at peak efficiency and most of its major challengers struggling, it could be a long summer for Ford and Toyota fans.
"I don't really think there is anybody in the wings," said Keselowski when asked who might be able to derail the HMS juggernaut. "I think where we are right now is where we're going to be for the remainder of the year. You might see some small gains from some teams, but I don't see anything significant coming.
“The Penske cars are probably the best when it comes to balance,” he said. “The Hendrick cars are probably the best (on) power. Kevin Harvick’s team is probably the fastest, (and) I don't really see that changing for the duration of the season.”
Even Harvick, who has access to the full complement of HMS chassis, engines, technology and set-up advice, responded snappishly Sunday when asked about Hendrick’s dominance, saying, “I think it's pretty obvious."
When he’s right, he’s right.
Hendrick Motorsports is unquestionably the team to beat in 2014. With six victories in 14 starts – and three more for their Stewart Haas Racing affiliate – they have a firm grasp on the Sprint Cup Series’ collective windpipe.
“We've got 12 weeks until the Chase starts,” said Keselowski, doing his best to sound optimistic. “At Penske, I think we're right there, just half a nose behind the Hendrick‑powered cars. We need just a little bit more, and if we can do that, we have a shot at running for the championship.
“But we've got work to do to get there."