by Ryan Isley
Dorothy did everything she could to get back to Kansas. Hendrick Motorsports couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there.
Kansas Speedway wasn’t paved with yellow bricks for Hendrick Motorsports last weekend in the Hollywood Casino 400, as Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne all wrecked and put their chances to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship in serious jeopardy. The wrecks caused Kahne to finish 22nd, Earnhardt Jr. 39th and Johnson 40th. More damaging, however, is their spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings, where Kahne finds himself ninth, Earnhardt Jr. is 11th and Johnson is 12th. Only the top eight drivers will advance to the next round following the next two races.
One good thing about the new Chase format is that one bad week can be erased with a win. A victory this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500 or next week in the Gieco 500 at Talladega Superspeedway would automatically move a driver into the “Eliminator” round of the Chase.
For Kahne and Johnson, their chance to advance into the next round of the Chase might come this week. Johnson owns seven career victories at the track, including one earlier this season. Johnson has 13 top-5 finishes in 26 races at Charlotte and his average finish of 11.2 is second only to Joey Logano’s 10.5 among drivers in the Chase. In the last four races at Charlotte, Johnson has a win, a third-place finish and a fourth-place finish.
Kahne has seen victory lane four times at Charlotte and his average finish of 11.5 is fourth among drivers in the Chase. Kahne has nine top-5s in his 21 attempts at Charlotte and has four finishes of fourth or better in the last six races, including a win.
The news for their teammate isn’t so positive when it comes to Charlotte, however.
Not only has Earnhardt Jr. never been to victory lane at Charlotte, he hasn’t finished in the top-5 in the last 11 races there. Earnhardt Jr.’s average finish of 19.4 at Charlotte is worst among the remaining drivers in the Chase, with only Ryan Newman’s 19.0 being close. The next worse driver is Kevin Harvick at 16.3, or more than three full places better than Earnhardt Jr. In the last 11 races at Charlotte, Earnhardt Jr.’s average finish is 24.5, with just three finishes in the top-15.
Next week’s race might paint a brighter picture for the No.88 team, as Earnhardt Jr. once owned Talladega to the point that it was referred to as Dale-adega. He owns a career-best five wins at Talladega and even though it has been a while since Earnhardt Jr. found victory lane at the track, he did finish second in this race last season. And after a terrible strategy in the spring race at Talladega that netted Earnhardt Jr. a 26th-place finish, he will be looking to prove that he is still a force to be reckoned with on the restrictor plate tracks.
The problem about holding out hope for a win at Talladega to advance to the next round is that anything can happen at the superspeedway. And by can, I mean usually does. There is always the threat of the big wreck at Talladega, which with the new rules in the Chase make it an even bigger wild card that it normally would be. The danger of a wreck is what led Earnhardt Jr. to the 26th-place finish earlier this season at Talladega, as he continued to lay back in the pack trying to avoid any damage if and when the big wreck finally happened.
Due to the trouble at Kansas, it is now or never for the three Hendrick teammates. They can’t afford to be cautious in these next two races, as right now it would be difficult for them to catch up in points to move forward to the “Eliminator” round.
No Toto, NASCAR isn’t in Kansas anymore. But for Hendrick Motorsports, the negative memories might have a lasting effect if they can’t find wins these next two weeks. And even the Wizard might not be able to help them then.