|JJ is one of the "haves"|
After 15 races it is becoming increasingly apparent who are the haves and have nots. The ones with Hendrick cars and power have it. Those without, don’t. Everyone who doesn’t is fighting for second place – or more likely, fifth or sixth.
All four Hendrick Motorsports team cars finished in the top seven Sunday at Michigan, Jimmie Johnson taking the checkers there for the first time at the track. The team now has six wins for the season – and five straight, including three of four by Johnson.
Contrast the performance of Hendrick cars and Chevrolet engines with that of Ford’s previous lead team, Roush-Fenway Racing. The entire Roush team was a lap behind the leader before the Michigan race was half over; on a track RFR had considered its own private playground. Meanwhile, the Fords of Roger Penske are about the only cars capable of challenging the Hendrick boys at the moment. None of the Toyotas scared the leaders.
If the Chase was to start tomorrow, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would enter at one-two-three. Six of the 16 cars would be affiliated with Hendrick. That number could easily grow with a couple of breaks. Kasey Kahne, whose performance some have questioned this year, scored his fourth top-five finish and is now 19th in the point standings, closing in on a place in the Chase. Jamie McMurray is another spot back and also closing. Kurt Busch, back in 26th, has a win in the bank. We could easily have half the Chase field powered-by-Hendrick.
The dominance of the Hendrick teams has been so complete; other teams are back in the game of scrambling for points. When the new Chase format was introduced prior to the start of the season, most figured it would take a win to make the Chase. Not anymore. Finish in the top 16 in points and you’re in.
Some, including Brad Keselowski, are indicating it’s simply a matter of better engine performance, saying the Penske cars have an aerodynamic advantage. But it would be a mistake to simply write the Hendrick cars off as more powerful. At Michigan, Johnson not only outran and outdrove competition, Chad Knaus outthought them. Johnson thinks it’s all that and more.
“Honestly I think what's working for us is the amount of time we have together,” Johnson said. “We've lost races together. We've lost championships together. And certainly we've had success. But 69 wins and six championships out of 13 years of racing is a pretty small percentage. Some of the losses you have are -- you got what you could that day and you went on, but a lot of those losses in there sting, and I think experience through those moments make us stronger and better.
"Everybody knows about 2005 and the milk and cookies meeting that Rick had with us. I think from that moment on, we were able to be more comfortable, oddly enough, in our own skin, and as a part of team 48. Nobody is going anywhere. We're in this thing together, and we are team 48."