The All-Star race has come and gone. Now there are just 15 points-counting races before the Chase begins. There will be a lot of jockeying for position over that time, with many drivers riding waves of momentum to get in, while others will undoubtedly hit a cold spell and drop out of the top 10 in points.
One thing to keep an eye on through all of this is the potential of Hendrick Motorsports. If the Chase started today, based on the new format, all four Hendrick drivers would qualify for the championship run.
So, that begs the questions of, can the team put all four of its drivers into the Chase, and just how good could they be this year?
The short answer to those two questions are yes, and very good bordering on dominant.
Through the first 11 races, both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have each scored a victory. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has only finished outside the top 20 one time this year and currently sits fourth in the point standings, and Mark Martin sits 11th in the points, while also posting just one finish of worse than 20th.
In terms of a team, Hendrick Motorsports is having the best all-around year this season. While Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth have been great for Roush Racing, their teammates Greg Biffle and David Ragan have only been decent, while battling some inconsistencies.
Over at Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle Busch has been phenomenal, but Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano have been two of the sports biggest disappointments thus far this season.
And Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer have both had solid seasons for Richard Childress Racing, but Jeff Burton has been virtually nonexistent, and after a torrid start, Paul Menard has really cooled off in recent weeks.
That leaves Hendrick alone at the top. By now we all know how good Johnson is, and we also know that that team doesn't even show how great they can be until the Chase starts. So you can almost guarantee at least three or four more wins for him.
Then there is Jeff Gordon. He currently sits just 14th in the points, with only three top-10 finishes, but by virtue of his win in Phoenix, he would get in to the Chase.
Gordon has been struck by some bad luck this season, and while his finishes aren't all great, I think he has run extremely well on the whole this year.
The pairing of Gordon and new crew chief Alan Gustafson has worked very well, and that duo should have no problem finding victory lane at least two more times this year. In fact, don't be too shocked to see them score multiple victories before the Chase even begins.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the surprise drivers of the 2011 season. He has been the model of consistency with his finishes, and that has parlayed into an early fourth place points standing.
He finished a disappointing 24th in the season-opening Daytona 500, after getting involved in a late race accident. He had been one of the strongest cars all day long.
Since then, Earnhardt Jr. has finished no worse than 19th, and has been in contention to snap his 103-race winless streak multiple times.
During the offseason, Earnhardt was paired with crew chief, Steve Letarte. The two of them have worked better together than most people could have predicted, and at this point it seems that it is more of a question of when instead of if Jr. will win again.
Then there is Mark Martin. When looking at Martin's 2011 statistics, they certainly won't jump off the page at you. But, like Earnhardt, he has been consistent. He was involved in a wreck at Texas which led to a 36th place finish, but other than that, he has been in the top 20 every week.
Martin has had a season similar to Gordon. He seems to have a fast race car each and every week, but for one reason or another they just can't seem to put together the finishes that they deserve.
I think that Martin and his Lance McGrew-led No. 5 team have the potential to be a surprise as the season goes along. This is a team that is capable of putting together a win or two, and at the very least should continue to at least challenge for a Chase spot.
So, all in all, this year's Hendrick Motorsports has all the potential to be one of the best teams of all time. If they can continue to run solidly and consistently like they have done through the first 11 weeks, there is no reason to think that all four teams could wind up in the Chase.
When the season is over, I expect Hendrick to have at least 10 wins as an organization. Johnson should be good for five. Gordon can easily score three wins, and both Earnhardt Jr. and Martin have great opportunities to score a win.
It's unfortunate that this will be the last season that these four drivers will be teammates, because the way this season is going, it could have been the start to a NASCAR dynasty.
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