by Ryan Isley
Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five. But six. Six straight wins. That is what Hendrick Motorsports will be shooting for this Sunday at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.
With Hendrick’s own “Big 3” – Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr – combining to win the last five races in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series, Hendrick Motorsports is just one win away from tying the modern day (1972-present) record for most consecutive wins in a season – also held by Hendrick Motorsports. In 2007, it was Gordon and Johnson who won six straight races, as Gordon won at Talladega and Charlotte, while Johnson ripped off the next four wins at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix before Matt Kenseth ended the streak in the final race of the season at Homestead. This season, the streak started with a win by Gordon at Kansas, back-to-back wins by Johnson at Charlotte and Dover, followed by Earnhardt, Jr. winning at Pocono and then another Johnson victory, this time at Michigan.
In the previous two seasons, the longest winning streak for a team was just three – also held by Hendrick Motorsports. In 2012, Johnson and Kasey Kahne combined to win in Darlington (Johnson), Charlotte (Kahne) and Dover (Johnson). Later that season, Kahne (New Hampshire), Johnson (Indianapolis) and Gordon (Pocono) repeated that feat. There have been eight two-race winning streaks for teams in that time, with Joe Gibbs Racing doing it five times, Hendrick twice and Stewart-Haas Racing once. No team has won more than one race in a row this season other than Hendrick’s current five-race streak.
It has been a strong season for Hendrick’s “Big 3,” as they have combined for six wins, 18 top-5s and 31 top-10s in the season’s first 15 races. That means that of 45 possible results between the three, they have finished in the top-5 28.9% of the time and in the top-10 68.9% of the time. As impressive as that is over the course of 15 races, this latest five-race stretch has exceeded even that. There have been 15 possible results in those five races, with Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt, Jr. finishing in the top-5 in 33.3% of those (five) and in the top-10 in an astounding 86.7% of them (13).
Statistically, Hendrick’s top three drivers are dominating the NASCAR Sprint Cup leaderboard. Johnson is the only driver with three wins this season, while Earnhardt, Jr. is one of three drivers with two wins, joined by Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick. Earnhardt, Jr. is tied with Brad Keselowski for the most top-5 finishes this season with seven each. Gordon leads the series with 11 top-10s, while Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. each have 10, tied with Kenseth for the second-most. Gordon also leads the Sprint Cup series in average finish at 9.1, the only driver with an average of better than 10. Kenseth in second at 10.6, with Earnhardt, Jr. and Johnson tied for third at 10.9. Johnson has led more laps than anyone in the Sprint Cup series this season, leading 1,007 laps. The only other driver over 600 laps led this season is Harvick, with 859, which is 148 less than Johnson.
No other team in NASCAR has as many wins, top-5s, or top-10s as Hendrick Motorsports, who also have two top-5s and five top-10s from Kasey Kahne. The closest team in terms of top-5s would be Penske Motorsports, who have a combined 13 top-5s between Keselowski and Logano. Joe Gibbs Racing boasts 21 top-10s between Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kenseth, which is the most top-10s for any team other than Hendrick.
Not only have Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt, Jr. won six races between the three of them, but they have won the two signature races to this point in the season, as Earnhardt, Jr. took the No.88 to victory lane in the Daytona 500 and Johnson picked up his first win in the No. 48 this season in the Coca-Cola 600. The three of them have also all finished in the top-10 in seven races this season and four times they have all finished seventh or better in the same race.
The last five races have catapulted these three to the top three spots in the Sprint Cup standings, as Gordon leads with 537 points and one win, Johnson is 15 points behind with three wins and Earnhardt, Jr. is 23 points behind with two wins. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup started now, Johnson would top the Chase grid with Earnhardt, Jr. in second and Gordon in fifth place. The fourth Hendrick driver – Kahne – would miss the Chase if it started now, as he is 18 points behind the last Chase spot.
As positive as things look for Hendrick Motorsports so far, things could get even better this week as Gordon and Kahne could both improve their Chase outlook with a win on a track at which they have both experienced success. Kahne has one win and three finishes of sixth or better in his last five races at Sonoma, while Gordon has statistically been the king of Sonoma in his career. Gordon is the all-time leader at Sonoma in wins (five), top-5s (13), top-10s (17) and laps led (454). In his last 12 races at Sonoma, Gordon has finished worse than ninth only once – a 33rd-place finish in 2004. His last five races have resulted in three runner-up finishes (including last year), a fifth-place finish and a sixth-place finish. Of course, you can’t leave Johnson out of the discussion, as he has a win and four top-5s at Sonoma, with five consecutive top-10s at the track.
Of the four Hendrick drivers, it is Earnhardt, Jr. who struggles the most at Sonoma, without a top-10 in his career and a career-best finish of 11th in 2003, 2004 and 2010. He has two 12th-place finishes as well, with one of those coming last season.
A win for Gordon would give Hendrick the top three drivers if the Chase would start after the race, bumping him to second place with his second win on the season. Possibly even more important, a win for Kahne would likely put him in the Chase, meaning that all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers would make the Chase in each of the last three seasons.
So while Hendrick’s top three drivers have been dominating the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season – and especially for the last few weeks – there may still be much more celebrating coming in the near future. And it might not just be reserved for Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt, Jr.
After all, they are Hendrick Motorsports. Boom. Confetti.