By admin | September 14, 2009
By Richard Allen
The 2009 NASCAR Chase for the Championship has taken the very definite shape of Hendrick Motorsports vs. everyone else.
Hendrick and it’s satellite organization, Stewart-Haas Racing, took five of the twelve spots within the championship playoff pool. And it isn’t numbers alone that place HMS and SHR solidly in the position of title favorites. The two organizations deal from a position of strength from just about every possible angle.
The three drivers representing Hendrick itself will be Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
Johnson comes in as the three time defending champion. Little else needs to be said in making his case as a solid contender for the 2009 Sprint Cup. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have formed one of the most successful duos in NASCAR history and a title here would almost certainly place them ahead of all other driver/crew chief combinations with the likely exception of Richard Petty and Dale Inman.
Four championships in a row would put Johnson in a stand alone place in the history books. As of now, he is tied with Cale Yarborough as the only two drivers in the modern era to have scored three consecutive titles.
Obviously Johnson and his team know how to play the Chase game and have to be considered among the favorites.
Jeff Gordon, unlike Johnson, has never won a championship under the Chase format. However, there have been few in the sport’s history who have managed to rise to the occasion in big situations more often than the ‘Rainbow Warrior’. He has won four titles under the old format and has won every big event the sport has to offer. He can handle the pressure of a championship run.
If going by total points amassed, it could be argued that the Chase system has cost Gordon two championships. However, of course, it is really impossible to make such a claim as strategies would have played out differently under the old format.
Even considering his teammates’ impressive lists of accomplishments, Mark Martin almost certainly comes into the Chase as the sentimental favorite. The 50 year old great has never won a Sprint Cup title under either format. And besides the scores of well wishes, Martin has a slight advantage going into the playoff. Despite having to race his way in during the final qualifying race, Martin will be the points leader going into Sunday’s race in New Hampshire based on the bonus points awarded from his Chase contenders leading four victories.
Aside from their own formidable list of drivers, HMS has two other championship contenders under their corporate umbrella. Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman qualified for the Chase driving for pseudo Hendrick team, Stewart-Haas Racing.
SHR uses Hendrick chassis parts, engines and engineering. Also, many members of the SHR crews came from Hendrick.
Tony Stewart has lead the Sprint Cup standings throughout the summer months, and until the most recent races, looked invincible. He will start the Chase just behind Martin. If he can regain the form he had from May to August he will likely take home his third Sprint Cup trophy. He is currently the only driver to have won a title under both the old and new formats.
Newman has at times looked as if he could go on a roll and take some wins in 2009. Who’s to say that streak won’t come at the most important time of the season?
Going into the 2009 Chase for the Championship, Hendrick Motorsports and their satellite team seem to have all the advantages. They have former champions, sentimental favorites, hot drivers and proven winners. It looks as though the title will have to be pried from their hands and it will prove to be a monumental task for any team that might actually rise up to challenge them.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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