Hendrick Motorsports has kicked off the 2014 season with a pair of solid races with three of their drivers in the top six both races. However, this shouldn't be a surprise based on the strength of the organization.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. kicked off the season with a bang - winning the Daytona 500, while Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished fourth and fifth. At Phoenix, Earnhardt Jr. kept the consistancy going with a second place finish, with Gordon fifth and Johnson sixth. The fourth member of the party, Kasey Kahne, finished 11th at Phoenix following his wreck at Daytona.
While the finish of 11th doesn't ring bells that high, it was a solid run for Kahne as he struggled the first half of the race - running outside the top 20 at one point. For Kahne to come around and pick it up with a solid finish, it shows the strength of Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis.
Kahne also isn't a driver that is known for having solid starts to a season, as he struggled early last year. Kahne normally picks it up in the second half and puts together some solid consistent runs. Under this new points sytem, it may not work, though.
There's an average of 13 to 14 winners per season, so those individuals along with two or three others would make the Chase under this format. Kahne is normally not up there due to early seasonal mishaps so he will have to make sure he picks up a win between now and Richmond if he wants to see his Chase birth. That shouldn't be hard for the Washington native as he normally is able to pick up a win on a mile and a half - perhaps even this weekend at Las Vegas.
Jimmie Johnson is always solid from top to bottom, so his success marks no surprise. There is a reason that he is a six-time Sprint Cup Champion, after all. Though it was interesting to hear Johnson admit after the race that his team needs to do some homework. That is something that you normally don't hear out of the Hendrick Motorsports organization as they normally are on top of their stuff.
However, as Johnson admitted, they aren't on top of this new rule package due to focusing so much of their efforts towards winning the championship last year. It should be noted, in that same breath, that Earnhardt Jr. used Kevin Harvick's set-up for Sunday's race. SHR and Hendrick Motorsports have a technical alliance and share data, however it is odd to see the data being used in a SHR to HMS way, rather than vise versa.
Earnhardt Jr.'s success shouldn't be a surprise, with that added tidbit of information or without it. He ended off last year on a high and in the past 12 races, his average finish has been a solid 4.9. Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve LeTarte have improved with each year they've spent together. With this being their final year together as LeTarte moves to other opportunities, this is make or break when it comes to the championship. The pieces of the puzzle are there with the consistancy and running up front. The question will be whether the pair can keep it together and keep producing strong cars - while avoiding the dreaded bad luck.
For now with his Chase birth pretty much sealed up with the Daytona 500 win, LeTarte is focused on winning races from here on out. The last time Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, he won six races in that season. It'd be no surprise if that number was matched in 2014.
Completing off the Hendrick Motorsports picture is Jeff Gordon. Gordon has been solid his entire career - however hasn't been strong as late. He admited to it being difficult to find the balance that he wanted with the new car, but that looks to be solved as he is running up front. The problem last year was bad luck so if Gordon can eep himself on track and out of trouble, perhaps the veteran will return to the glory that he was known during his young years.
Hendrick Motorsports looks to have all the pieces towards putting together another championship season with any one of their drivers. The question will be - which driver will rise to the top and will they be able to claim the big prize?