CONCORD, N.C. – While Jimmie Johnson is considered a strong favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600, and thereby continue the resurgence of his Hendrick Motorsports team, his teammates won’t share his status.
Make no mistake, certainly they would like to win and it’s very possible that one of them will.
But, truth be known, they would likely be very pleased if they could finish among the top five – maybe even the top 10 – in the longest race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit.
Unlike Johnson, who has won the last two NASCAR events within a week, his three teammates have experienced different results this year.
Critics would give them “mixed” reviews.
One of them has had a solid year, but he still hasn’t won.
Another started his inaugural season with Hendrick horribly. But he has rebounded with top-10 finishes in each of the last five races.
The third has had such an uncharacteristically poor season that he’s even joked about it. Unless things improve dramatically he won’t make the Chase and get a shot at a fifth career championship.
Along with Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be considered a potential 600 winner. He, too, has been on a streak of sorts.
He won the Sprint Showdown and one segment of the Sprint All Star Race, won by Johnson. In the 600, Earnhardt Jr. will race the same Chevrolet in which he won the Showdown.
All of this seems to bode well for Earnhardt Jr. Additionally, even though his record in the 600 hasn’t been particularly good over the past several years, he was en route victory last year when he ran out of gas.
“You definitely feel you let one get away,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “When you come close to winning a race you definitely think about what you might have done different, or ‘If only this or that.’
“But you don’t think about that too much. You can get distracted and not really be thinking about what you’re trying to do that moment.”
Earnhardt Jr. was once the weakest link in the Hendrick chain. No longer.
This season he has finished out of the top 10 only twice and has five runs of seventh or better – including two runnerup and two thirds.
He’s been hovering near the points lead for most of the season. Going into the 600 he was in third place, just 14 points leader Greg Biffle. He’s two positions and 25 points ahead of Johnson.
Earnhardt Jr., who earned his last win at Michigan in 2008, has been flirting with victory so often that many supporters say it’s now only a matter of time.
That time could come at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I think we’re confident,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We know what kind of potential we have and we are all expecting to improve over some of the things we did last week.
“It’s (crew chief) Steve Legate’s and his group’s job to get together and squeeze a little more speed out of the car. We need to try to work harder to go better and to go faster.
“If the car is good enough and we do everything we need to do, we’ll be right there with an opportunity to win a race. That’s what you have to concentrate on.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick was among the many who thought Kasey Kahne would be a perfect fit at his organization.
After all, Kahne, who replaced the departed Mark Martin, came with excellent credentials. At age 32 with eight full seasons under his belt, he had won 12 races, including one with the lame duck Red Bull team last year at Phoenix.
But his season started miserably. Because of several misfortunes, his best run was a 14th at Fontana. He finished 29th or worse in four races. By the sixth race of the year he was 31st in points.
He been on a rally ever since. He came to Charlotte with a five-race string of top-10 finishes. He has climbed to 16th in points.
Obviously Kahne would like keep his good roll going at Charlotte.
“To me, the season hasn’t been great,” said Kahne, who will make his 300th career start at CMS. “But I do think some people may have thought it was much worse than what it was.
“I feel like we’ve been running pretty well since the start of the season. But we really haven’t made those big gains yet. We have speed and it’s obvious it’s right there. We just need to put it all together.”
Kahne isn’t sour about how his season started. He believes it was a result of certain circumstances.
“I am happy for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports over what’s been accomplished so far,” he said. “And as for the way we’ve run, I don’t think it’s necessarily me. Our team isn’t running as well as we would like – for now.
“But it is nice to know that everything we need is right there. We have the same stuff everyone else has and we’ve been able to use some of it to get better.
“If we hit on things hopefully we can run as good as the No. 48 (Johnson) has been running.”
Jeff Gordon is now in his 20th NASCAR season, all of which have been spent with Hendrick.
He has won 85 races and four championships. He was, without a doubt, the star player at Hendrick until Johnson’s rise, marked by five consecutive titles.
In 2012 what was once Gordon’s “star” has become a black hole.
He has only two finishes among the top 10 and seven of 20th or worse – including four beyond the top 30.
He’s been hammered by a series of improbable, unfortunate incidents that include everything from engine failure to poor pit stops to a tire that goes flat not once, but twice.
Gordon’s luck has been so bad Hendrick declared on national TV that he wouldn’t get in an airplane with him.
Even Gordon has been upbeat in post-race interviews following another disappointing race. He said there is a reason for that.
“What are you going to do other than keep your head up and work hard?” Gordon said. “You go to the next race and try to change it.
“We’ve got too good of a team and too good of a race cars to try to get down on ourselves about the way things are going. It’s tough.
“The timing gets tougher and tougher all the time because the more races that go by that we don’t get the results, the harder and harder that mountain is to climb.
“We just have to stay positive and say, ‘Hey, this is our week, this is our week.’ You can do that for only so long. We’re still doing it. Hopefully, we’ll see the results.”
For Gordon, who is 24th in points and in need of at least one victory to have any chance at the Chase as a “wildcard” entry, the results could come in the 600. He has won five times at Charlotte, one less than Johnson.
“I am excited about this weekend,” Gordon said. “At the All Star Race we learned a lot and also learned from Jimmie’s bunch, who dominated the race.
“We learned, as a team, on what we can do to be really, really good this weekend.”
In the 600 there will be four Hendrick teams on four different levels of performance. All of them, of course, hope for a good, productive outing.
One of them may have the ultimate performance.
That’s because any one of them could win. That’s a given.