The final chapter of SB Nation's offseason analysis of NASCAR's top teams comes to a close today with a look at Hendrick Motorsports.
2012 In The Rearview
A year ago, Rick Hendrick threw down the gauntlet and said that he expected all four of his drivers to make the Chase. And although there was some doubt along the way, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon did just that and gave Hendrick Motorsports four teams in the Chase for the first time in its history.
Furthermore, the organization went to Victory Lane a NASCAR-best 12 times, Johnson was his typical dominant self, Earnhardt Jr. turned in a terrific regular season and Kahne produced the best year of his career while Gordon, at the age of 41, showed he still has the fire.
Yet, there was still disappointment. Because in spite of what would be deemed a successful season by any other team, Hendrick ultimately failed to win the title for the second straight year.
2013 Driver Lineup
Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet); Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive to End Hunger); Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowes Chevrolet); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Army National Guard Chevrolet)
Considering the success the organization had in 2012, it's not surprising that there are no major personnel changes with any of the Hendrick teams. If there is a change of note, it's the departure of engineer Greg Ives, who had been a mainstay on the 48 team during its run of five consecutive titles.
Biggest Offseason Question
Having shed the monkey on his back and finally snapping a four-year winless drought, Earnhardt Jr. proved he is still capable of finding the winner's circle. But can he do so consistently enough to be considered a bona fide title contender? Because not since 2004 has he won more than a single race in a season, and no matter how many top fives and top 10s he racks up, without more victories, scoring a championship is going to be difficult.
And along with the above thought, Earnhardt Jr. also needs to lead more laps in 2013 and score more bonus points. Last season he led just 358 circuits, with 232 of those laps coming in three races. No champion in the Chase era has led less than 735 laps.
Whether NASCAR's most popular driver can do all of the above is in doubt. But in his third year of working with crew chief Steve Letarte, it is the step Earnhardt Jr. needs to make next, and doing so should the focus of the No. 88 team this offseason.
When you drive for Hendrick you're not only expected to win races, you're expected to contend for championships. And that standard will be one that Johnson, Kahne, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon all will face again in 2013.
However that reality isn't all that unfair when you consider the amount of resources the team has at its disposal - resources which will prove beneficial when it comes to figuring out the new Gen 6 car. All of which means, while other teams may be slow out of the gate in 2013, expect Hendrick to be ahead of the curve and viewed as the measuring stick everyone else in the garage gauges themselves against.