By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
Can Hendrick Motorsports really be better without Jeff Gordon?
From a global perspective, to suggest such a thing would be pure heresy.
But from a year-over-year performance perspective, it’s well within the realm of possibility that the 2016 version of Hendrick Motorsports could outshine the 2015 edition, even with rookie Chase Elliott taking Gordon’s place behind the wheel of the No. 24 Chevrolet.
In fact, team owner Rick Hendrick said as much.
Even though Gordon advanced to the Championship Round of the Chase and finished third in the final standings last season, HMS had an off year by organization standards.
Jimmie Johnson won five times but was eliminated from the Chase in the first round at a track he dominates — Dover — thanks to a fluke failure of a rear end seal.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. collected three victories but bowed out of the Chase at Talladega, losing by a matter of inches a race he had to win to advance to the Round of 8. Joey Logano was slightly ahead of Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet when the caution flew at ‘Dega for the last time, freezing the field and ending the event.
Kasey Kahne, paired for the first time with former team engineer Keith Rodden as his crew chief, failed to make the Chase for the first time since joining Hedrick Motorsports in 2012.
“The summer slump we had wasn’t fun,” said Johnson, who visited Victory Lane for the fourth time on May 31 at Dover but didn’t win again until November at Texas. “It was painful living it, and I’m sure it was painful for some to watch it.
“That part wasn’t good, and then to be eliminated so early in the Chase. We were top-three to top-five in the points throughout the course of the year, and to have such a simple mechanical problem take us out at Dover… we weren’t around in the big picture after that.
“Sure, we won at Texas and had a really strong finish to the year, but we’ve put the bar pretty high for ourselves at the 48 team. I’m happy that’s the case, and I look forward to living up to that this year.”
The disappointment of 2015 has galvanized Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to do better this season, but Johnson’s leadership doesn’t stop with his own team.
“Jimmy has stepped up to the plate to lead the guys and get ‘em together and get the crew chiefs together,” Hendrick said. “He’s worked on getting ‘em to spend more time together. He takes his road crews out to lunch.
“Jimmy is really a champion. He does all the things he does personally to get himself in the best shape he can, and he’s put his arm around all three of his teammates and talked about how they can all get better together. I’m really proud of Jimmy. He’s going to be hard to beat this year — I predict that.”
The same might be true of Earnhardt, who starts his ninth year in the seat of the No. 88. Hendrick says the sport’s perennial most popular driver has never been happier.
“It took a while for us to get it right — I know that,” Earnhardt said. “But we’re winning races, and I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had driving race cars. I’ve got to give the company all the credit and Rick a lot of credit. There are just so many good people working there, and it’s such a fun place to be.
“The cars are the best in the garage. The people are the best. And every time you get in (the car), you’ve got all the confidence in the world that it’s going to do what you want it to do. Like I said, we’ve had more fun in the last two years than I can ever remember having, and I’m just hoping to keep it going from here.”
Earnhardt’s team should benefit from the experience Greg Ives gained last year in his first stint as crew chief for the No. 88. Similarly, Rodden starts his second year on top of the pit box with Kahne’s No. 5 team, though driver and crew chief already have a long history together.
“Mine and Keith’s relationship has been great,” Kahne said. “It’s been good for a long period of time. When I first started working with Keith, I think it was 2004, and we’ve been friends and worked together ever since. Last year, as a crew chief, that’s the first time we’ve had that kind of relationship, and I thought it was solid…
“In my opinion, we lost a little bit when Keith left us (for a one-year stint as Jamie McMurray’s crew chief at Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014). We lost a little bit on the engineer side in what we had built, but now we have that back with Keith, and we’re building our engineering side back up, and I feel like this season’s going to be good again.”
Gordon’s departure for the FOX Sports broadcast booth will leave a substantial void (though he is still part owner of Johnson’s car), but for Hendrick, there’s a silver lining in the form of a rookie driver who Hendrick says is no ordinary rookie.
“I temper (Gordon’s departure) with the excitement for Chase,” Hendrick said. “I remember watching Jimmy grow and go and become a champion. I remember Jeff doing the same, and really, Dale blossoming.
“I got so much thrill watching Chase win that (XFINITY) championship that first year (2014). That energizes me to watch Chase grow, so I’m excited about that.”
Hendrick believes Elliott can qualify for the Chase in his rookie season, and the 20-year-old driver is too well-mannered to disagree with the boss.
“I think we have all the resources and people amongst our circles to make it happen, for sure,” Elliott said. “I think if I can do my part, we should have no excuse to not (make it), really and truly…
“I think, for me being the new guy in, I’m going to have a lot to learn. I truly believe that (my team is) a group that can win, and if I can do my part for them, we can contend for some good finishes and hopefully some wins.”
Image: Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images