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The Way It Is/ Can Hendrick Motorsports beat Roush Fenway to this year's Sprint Cup championship?

by Gordon Kirby
In my blog last Wednesday (Sep 17) at Motor Sport's website (www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk) I reported that Chris Pook is working on a brand new venue, most likely on the west coast, to stage the United States Grand Prix. I wish Chris the best of luck on his mission, not only because it would be great to see an American race back on the F1 schedule but because Pook may be the only man capable of finding the right venue and building the event over time into an established round of the world championship. All the manufacturers competing in F1 have repeatedly told Bernie Ecclestone it's essential to have a United States GP on the F1 schedule so let's hope Pook can get it done for 2010 or '11.

The other big news of the week was that Steve Hallam will leave McLaren at the end of the year to join Michael Waltrip's Toyota NASCAR team as director of race engineering. Hallam is McLaren's head of race operations and has worked in Formula 1 for 27 years, first with Lotus, then McLaren. Read more about Hallam's move to NASCAR in my Motor Sport blog today (Monday).

Meanwhile, as summer turns to fall, NASCAR's Chase for the Cup dominates America's motor racing landscape and Jack Roush's Roush Fenway operation has put itself at the center of the story as Greg Biffle scored excellent back-to-back wins in the opening two races of the Chase. Biffle beat Jimmie Johnson's Hendrick Chevrolet and Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards in New Hampshire, then led an impressive Roush Fenway/Ford one-two-three sweep on the Monster Mile at Dover. The 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway follows next weekend, a classic Roush Fenway Ford track, before a wild card Talladega restrictor-plate race.

With eight races to go, Edwards leads the championship by ten points from Johnson and Biffle and at this stage this year's Sprint Cup title looks like a three-way fight between this trio. Fourth, fifth and sixth after Dover are the trio of Richard Childress Chevrolets driven by Jeff Burton, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

Johnson has won the Sprint Cup championship the last two years, of course, and came on strong in recent months after a slow start to the season. He won only one of the year's first nineteen Cup races, but after dominating the tire-torn Brickyard 400 in August he won again at the California Speedway on Labor Day weekend and at Richmond the following week after a fierce battle with Tony Stewart.

Johnson led the most laps in the opening round of the Chase for the Cup in New Hampshire before he was beaten in the final sprint to the checkered flag by Biffle. At Dover on Sunday, Johnson again ran well, but couldn't match the Roush Fenway Fords, finishing fifth behind Mark Martin's DEI Chevrolet. A few weeks ago I talked to Hendrick Motorsports general manager Ken Howes about the challenges the defending champion Hendrick/Chevrolet team has faced this year and its championship prospects.

"Jimmie is trying to be a good champion and represent the sport well and that's a distraction for sure," Howes commented. "But having won the last two year's championships, it's like Jimmie and Chad (Knaus) and those guys knew that it was about how you race in the Chase and they know how to race in the Chase. There was no panic in the middle of the season. They had a few months to work it out and I think you've seen that take place. Jimmie's showing the form right now. He's got his stuff figured out."

Howes says there are many reasons why the Hendrick Chevrolets were less then their expected stellar selves through the first half of the season.

"It's many things," the laconic Howes remarked. "We had two very good years and winning as many races as we did, expectations were high going into the season. When you get those kinds of results it's like, 'What are you going to do for an encore?'

"The perception was that we were on top of the Car of Tomorrow and when you reflect on it we did have success with the Car of Tomorrow, or the Impala, whatever you want to call it. But when you look at it we had some good luck last year which helped us win some races. Various things happened and we were there to pick up the pieces."

Howes pointed out that despite the team's successful efforts last year with the CoT, the majority of Hendrick's work force continued to concentrate on the old Monte Carlos which weren't retired until the end of the season.

"The bulk of our people were involved in keeping our Monte Carlos running and winning the championship," Howes noted.

The final transition over the winter to the CoT or Impala seemed to go well. Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr won the season-opening Bud Shoot-Out at Daytona in his first start for Hendrick and all four Hendrick cars ran well in the 500 if not producing any results. But as the season began to unfold it became clear that the Hendrick Impalas had their problems. On many tracks, Joe Gibbs's Toyotas or the Roush Fenway Fords or RCR Chevrolets had the measure of Hendrick's cars.

"A month or two into the new year we realized we weren't as far along with the new car as we thought," Howes observed. "It's all part of the cycles racing goes through."

Howes added that there are minusses as well as plusses to running a fleet of four cars.

"We've got four drivers and they're all looking for something different," he remarked. "Each of them wants the car to drive a different way."

But in recent months Johnson and Earnhardt in particular have been very competitive in most races and Jeff Gordon has also run well. The team also had a learning curve to climb with new driver Earnhardt and his crew chief Tony Eury Jr. who came with Earnhardt to Hendrick from DEI.

"With Dale Jr. coming onboard we had to learn to understand him and to understand Tony," Howes said. "We expected that process to take a little while but they went out and ran really well right off the bat and consistently they were pretty strong, too."

Speaking as the Chase was about to begin in New Hampshire, Earnhardt was very complimentary about how the Hendrick team operates.

"It's so open, everything they do," Earnhardt declared. "Chad (Knaus) is super honest. All the crew chiefs are like that. I feel very comfortable with how honest everybody is. Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports appreciates the rest of the group."

Earnhardt says the team understands that each driver requires his own, unique setup. He says the team's ability to get the best out of each driver is one of its keys to success.

"Our setups are a little different," Earnhardt said. "I looked at Chad's setups in California and saw exactly where we were about a tenth-place car and he was so strong. But I look at the Richmond setups and it's just one little thing that they're doing differently than us and we had to really go 100% in a totally other direction to work with his setup. So I kind of liked mine because I've always run good there.

"If I put his setup on my car am I going to drive it just as fast as he drove his? Am I going to like everything it's doing? The attitude of the car down in the corner, is that going to fit my style and what I look for in a car? If it ain't, then I need to change something to get there and get happy with it and make it work.

"Setups are so diverse sometimes between the teams," Earnhardt added. "There's a lot of times, I mean 60% of the year we are at the race track and all four cars are different. But everybody has good knowledge of what the other guy is doing and that's what's really good about it."

Howes is disappointed that Casey Mears hasn't been able to be as successful as his teammates this year.

"Casey ran pretty good, but he had some wrecks he got caught in and that got him behind," Howes said. "That got him down in the points and the result was he started a lot of races in the back, and these cars are really hard to race in the pack. The spring race in New Hampshire he had a good car and the team used some good pit strategy to get him to the front, and he ran a great race all day. So we know he can do it."

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon has struggled to adapt to the new CoT. After winning six races and finishing second to Johnson in last year's championship, Gordon has endured a tough '08 season with no wins to date. Right now, he's eighth in points with Earnhardt hanging on in ninth after a poor result at Dover.

"We're still trying to figure Jeff's car out for him," Howes admitted. "It appears the new car needs a fundamental change in how you drive it. He's more or less admitted it's tough teaching an old dog to learn new tricks. At some tracks we get it so he has the feel for it, and some tracks we don't. So it's really been an up and down season for him.

"With Jeff, I get the feeling you're racing not to lose, rather than trying to win. And when you do that you don't make those gutsy calls on strategy and set-up which is what this team could do and did so well. Like Pocono last year when they made a decision based on the wind and the weather and it got them to the back of the pack, but he was able to drive through them. And with the new car, because it runs so poor in the pack, you just don't think of making those kinds of calls. Hopefully, in the next couple of months, it'll be different."

Howes says he believes the CoT has achieved NASCAR's goals.

"I think NASCAR has succeeded in their plans. The cars are hard to drive and some of the race strategy calls with this car are difficult to make like if you want two or four tires."

The change to the CoT has cost all of NASCAR's teams a lot of money, but Howes says most of the teams are beginning to get a grip on coping with the CoT and building their fleets of new cars.

"So much of the basic build of the car is in the regulations," Howes observed. "Most of the performance is in the race set-up--the geometry, springs and bump rubbers. Each track presents a different challenge. We've spent a lot of time testing at Kentucky and Nashville, trying to understand the car, and it's paid off, particularly for Jimmie, but for the whole team."

Making practical sense of the testing is another key to success as it is in all forms of motor racing.

"I would say over the last three or four months probably one of our teams was testing every week," Howes said. "It's more than we've done in the past, but not an insane amount more. There's a limit to the wear and tear on the team and on the people and the cost. You have to be smart about it. Like testing at Kentucky, for example. It's a unique track and there isn't a tire built for it. We're using a California tire, or a Charlotte tire. So you have to be aware of all these things and try to be smart about it."

Howes says there's no point in getting exercised about the financial and technical resources possessed by Toyota. He believes Hendrick's team and General Motors will be able to respond to Toyota's challenge.

"You have to respect what Toyota has accomplished in racing and the resources they are bringing to bear on their NASCAR program. It affects your thinking, for sure. GM's problems are well-documented and that trickles down. But GM has a good group of talented people and we have too. You always want more of course, but you have to get on with it. We have to do the best with what we've got."

Even though he's been in the racing business for more than a third of a century and has spent twenty years with Hendrick's NASCAR team, Howes continues to go to all thirty-six Sprint Cup races.

"You can't do it halfway," he remarked. "You either do it, or not. I can't race from home. It's what we do. I go to probably half the tests as well. I enjoy being around the cars. I go (to the tests) whenever I can."

The team's new driver, Earnhardt Jr., may be the ultimate cheerleader but he has high praise for team owner Hendrick.

"It's real easy to work for Rick," Dale Jr says. "Everybody that works there knows that and everybody that works there loves it. When you go to work for Rick you walk in the door looking out for number one, but before the end of the day, you're looking out for Rick. Everybody he knows is like that."

But after Roush Fenway's powerful showing in the first two rounds of the Chase, it looks like Johnson is Hendrick's only championship threat.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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