Hendrick taking different approach to Chase this year

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Charlotte, NC (Sports Network) - Team owner Rick Hendrick arguably had his best season in NASCAR's premier series in 2009, with Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finishing 1-2-3, respectively, in points. That same scenario won't be unfolding for Hendrick this year.

Gordon qualified for the championship Chase last month at Bristol, and Johnson, who is seeking his record-extending fifth consecutive Sprint Cup Series title, locked down his playoff spot last Sunday at Atlanta. But Gordon and Johnson likely will be the only Hendrick drivers in this year's Chase field.

Barring a miracle in Saturday's regular season-ending race at Richmond, Martin will miss the Chase, as he currently trails 12th-place Clint Bowyer by 147 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 219-point deficit has him missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

"Our plan is to build momentum and get better every week" Rick Hendrick said.
With two drivers in and two out, would this be considered a down year for the mighty Hendrick organization? Not necessarily.

"We're not happy with where we are as an organization, but we're working on it," Hendrick said. "Nobody is blaming anybody, and nobody is giving up."

Ten drivers have now qualified for the Chase, which begins September 19 at New Hampshire.

Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer will presumably secure the final two spots in the Chase. Regardless of any other driver's performance, Biffle will clinch with a 42nd-place finish or higher, and Bowyer will qualify with a 28th-place run or better.

Heading into the Chase, not only will a fifth Cup championship for either Gordon or Johnson be a priority for Hendrick, but building momentum for all four teams will be among the top objectives as well.

"My philosophy is when you've got some areas to work on, you work hard and you work together," he said. "I would rather miss the Chase and have momentum in the last 10 [races] than be in the Chase and grind to a nothing toward the end of the year.

"Our plan is to build momentum and get better every week. Hopefully by the end of the year, we'll have all four teams going forward and not backing up."

Hendrick had three of his drivers in the Chase each year from 2006-09. Johnson has made the Chase each season since the playoff format began in 2004.

Johnson is currently seventh in points, but due to his five victories so far this year, he could start the Chase in the first seed. Denny Hamlin also has five wins for the season. Johnson's third-place run at Atlanta marked his first top-10 finish since August 1 at Pocono.

"There's a lot of teams coming together right now, and I think the 12 drivers in the Chase, and the organizations represented in the Chase, are all pretty strong," Johnson said. "I still think we are trying to catch up a little bit. Some guys might be a little further ahead. We all have our complaints here and there. But I think you're going to have a really good Chase."

Gordon presently holds the second spot in points, but Gordon has yet to win this season.

Martin recently has been plagued with distractions, particularly his driving status with Hendrick for next year. The 51-year-old Martin will drive the No.5 Chevrolet for Hendrick in 2011 before Kasey Kahne takes over his seat the following year.

"We'd certainly like to be in," Martin said. "We will make our very best effort, just as we have starting at Daytona in February. For me, and I think for our whole team, Staying focused on upping our game, improving our performance and working toward trying to get back in the form that we were in last year is our number one priority."

Martin notched five wins in his first season with Hendrick in '09, but has yet to drive into victory lane this year.

After finishing the '09 season a disappointing 25th in points, it looked like Earnhardt Jr. was on the rebound earlier this year. Earnhardt Jr. held a top-12 spot in points after Darlington in May, but NASCAR's most popular driver slowly has faded from there.

Hendrick confirmed this past weekend that Lance McGrew will remain as Earnhardt Jr.'s crew chief heading into next year.

"I'm pretty happy with the chemistry there now," Hendrick noted. "We had some good momentum going, and then we kind of fumbled the ball a little bit here right before the Chase."

When Gordon failed to make the Chase field in 2005, Hendrick made a crew chief change on Gordon's team at the start of the 10-race playoffs, with Steve Letarte replacing Robbie Loomis.

Gordon and Letarte will be in the Chase for the fifth straight year.

Hendrick will attempt to set a record for most all-time owner championships in the series with 10, but chasing history won't be the only thing on Hendrick's mind during this year's Chase, as he looks to revamp his once-dominant organization.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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