The NASCAR offseason is a time to rest and recharge. Yet it's also a time to refocus and complete a self-analysis of one's strengths and weaknesses with an emphasis on establishing goals for the following season.
As SB Nation did last year at this time, over the course of the next few weeks we will be evaluating the sport's top teams (those that finished the preceding year 25th or better in owners points). Each analysis will include the biggest question facing each team this offseason, any key changes, as well an outlook for 2014.
The analysis begins with a look at Hendrick Motorsports where, thanks to some last-minute machinations, for the second consecutive year all four of its drivers qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In fact, Hendrick was the only team to place more than two cars in the Chase, further enhancing its reputation as the organization others measure themselves against.
2013 in the Rearview
If there was any uncertainty Jimmie Johnson's dominance had subsided after failing to win the championship for two seasons, that doubt vanished following a year which the 48 team dominated from the beginning of the season to the end. Johnson opened the year with a victory in the Daytona 500, and en route to his sixth series title, won five other races and led more laps than anyone else.
Producing his best season since joining Hendrick in 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. placed fifth in points and became especially formidable as the year reached its conclusion. In the 10-race Chase, he collected eight top-10s including three runner-ups, and ended 2013 with four consecutive finishes of eighth or better. And overall, Earnhardt had a career-high 22 top-10s.
The only downside to Earnhardt's season was that he failed to find Victory Lane. This marked the fifth time in seven years he's posted a zero in the win column, and continues to be the biggest hurdle to being a bona fide title contender.
Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne each won at least once and qualified for the Chase, but their respective seasons were defined mainly by inconsistency and near-misses. Particularly snakebitten was Gordon, especially early in the season when he crashed while leading at Bristol and had a parts failure at Texas running third. As for Kahne, he began the year strong but faded considerably in closing months.
2014 Driver Lineup
Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet); Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive to End Hunger); Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet); Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Army National Guard Chevrolet)
An organization that prides itself on stability and continuity, Hendrick will see all driver and crew chief combinations remain as is for 2014.
Biggest Offseason Question
There again will be questions regarding Earnhardt and why he doesn't win more than he does. Earnhardt is too good of a driver working with an excellent crew chief in Steve Letarte, and the quality of the equipment underneath him is second to none.
That said, Earnhardt did have five second-place finishes and were it not for Johnson, would have scored a handful of wins. This is why the biggest offseason question facing Hendrick is what to make of the season turned in by Kahne and his No. 5 team.
On the surface, Kahne had a year that would make many envious with wins at Bristol and Pocono, six runner-up finishes and for the first time in his career making the Chase in back-to-back seasons. However, compared to the year before when he finished a personal-best fourth in points, Kahne in 2013 failed to deliver.
In the second half of the season, his performance waned and he crashed far too often. His run in the Chase was a microcosm of his season as he mixed two second-place finishes and a fifth with seven finishes outside the top 10. A good year that should have been better ended with him ranked 12th overall.
Because Gordon is 42 and nearing the end of his career, and Johnson and Earnhardt are both in their late 30s, Kahne is viewed as the future of Hendrick. But this label comes with certain expectations and entering his third season, it's time for him to fulfill that promise. One way or another, 2014 will be a make-or-break campaign for the 33-year-old.
He may not win a seventh title, but it's a given that Johnson should win four to five races and again challenge for the championship. Though he doesn't win frequently enough, few drivers can match Earnhardt's steadiness. And with better luck, both Gordon and Kahne could easily have multiple victories.
The question isn't whether Hendrick can see all four of its drivers qualify for the Chase for a third straight season. More appropriately the question is, why not?