By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
To say its been an abysmal stretch of racing for Hendrick Motorsports would be an understatement. The highest HMS car currently in the championship standings is Jimmie Johnson in ninth, and currently as things stand only Johnson and rookie Chase Elliott would be representing the organization in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.
However, even after just accumulating three top-10 finishes between their four team cars over the last eight races, Hendrick Motorsports showcased some big-time speed Friday in qualifying for Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
Johnson led the way for the organization as he clocked in the second-fastest lap time in the final round of qualifying, and he was proud as punch about his team’s effort thus far this weekend.
“It was just an awesome day for this Lowe’s race car and this Lowe’s race team,” Johnson, the six-time series champion said. “We keep stacking pennies and making this car better and better. My hat’s off to everyone at Hendrick Motorsports and all the hard work they’re putting into things. Great practice and great qualifying. We need some more practice sessions and roll them into a good race.”
Elliott recorded the fifth starting spot in his No. 24 Chevrolet, while Alex Bowman, who is the driver filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week, was sixth-fastest. Even the forgotten man on the team — Kasey Kahne — laid down the 11th-quickest speed of the final qualifying round.
Kahne, who has been in a rumormill whirl-wind since his race team signed 18-year-old William Byron to drive in the Xfinity Series starting next season, just felt good to have a decent start to a race weekend for a change.
“Overall, we had probably our best Friday in a while,” said Kahne. “I felt really good in practice. Qualifying we didn’t feel near as good, but still ended up in the top 12.”
All-in-all from top to bottom, Friday was a huge turnaround from the stagnant summer that the Hendrick team has had. Johnson believes that the team, which has just two victories all season long, can build momentum with Sunday’s race and get themselves back into the championship conversation.
“It really would give us a lot of much-needed momentum,” Johnson explained. “I’ve been able to win championships having a slow summer, which most of my summers have been slow. And then there’s a few where we were quick through them. When you think of the tracks that we race on during the summer months, although they are very challenging and aerodynamics do come into play, they’re not your traditional 1.5-miles and they’re really not a lot like the tracks we race on during the Chase. And, they’re not my best tracks. My best tracks really are during those final 10 events. I’m not thinking that far ahead. I’m not thinking that much into it. Past history show when you get hot, you can stay hot. I think Tony Stewart might even be a better example with what he did in 2011 or 2012, somewhere in there. We hope we’re heating up and on the verge of getting hot.”
For the majority of the season, Joe Gibbs Racing and their stout Toyotas have been the class of the field. Meanwhile the usual perennial championship favorites — Hendrick — have lagged behind. In the past couple of months they have seemed a step — or two — behind the stiff competition for the title, which has led to many around the sport counting them out of the championship race which is a huge mistake.
I’m sure the 500-plus employees at the HMS shop have compiled bulletin boards full of smack that has been talked about their race team during their huge summer rut. Fans and media alike who have been counting out this team, which has won a NASCAR-record 11 Sprint Cup Championships, may have just woke a sleeping giant.
If they can have another strong day in practice on Saturday, expect all four of Hendrick Motorsports’ teams to have a shot at victory Sunday.