Has Hendrick Motorsports become the SEC of NASCAR?

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by Ryan Isley

When the one team (or conference) that seems to have a stranglehold on a sport is struggling, it becomes headline news. This is just as true in NASCAR as it is in college football.

So when Hendrick Motorsports had gone winless through five races in this NASCAR Monster Energy season and only one of its four drivers (Chase Elliott) had finished in the top 10, the questions started to arise about one of the sport’s super teams. It was reminiscent of what people were saying when the SEC started 1-4 in the college football bowl season this past season, with the one win a 17-16 victory for Mississippi State over the MAC’s Miami (OH).

SEC Hendrick 2That got me to thinking about who the drivers for Hendrick Motorsports would be if this was the SEC. So here goes…

Jimmie Johnson is Alabama

Johnson has won seven championships at NASCAR’s top level, while Alabama has won four national titles in the past eight seasons. The two are always there at the end of the season, even if the rest of the season has its ups and downs. In addition to his seven championships, Johnson has finished in the top 5 in five other seasons. Alabama has finished seventh or better in the AP poll eight times in the last nine seasons.

In addition to the success, Johnson and Alabama have one other thing in common. Johnson’s crew chief (Chad Knaus) and Alabama’s head coach (Nick Saban) are widely regarded as one of the best in their business but are also willing to stretch the limits of the rules to help their driver/team, without ever having the hammer dropped on them.

Jeff Gordon is LSU

The wily veteran who won championships before the younger dynasty came along. Gordon won four NASCAR titles before Johnson won his first and then became the second-best driver in the Hendrick stable once Johnson started winning championships. LSU won the national college football championship in 2003 (with Saban) and 2007 (with Les Miles) before Saban went to Alabama and won his first title with the Crimson Tide in 2009.

Chase Elliott is Texas A&M

The newcomer who made an immediate impact.

Elliott came on the scene in NASCAR’s premier division by winning the pole in the 2016 Daytona 500. With 10 top 5’s and 17 top 10’s, Elliott made the Chase for the Sprint Cup as a rookie, finishing the season 10th in the standings and taking home the Rookie of the Year Award. He has not slowed down this season, finishing in the top 5 twice and the top 10 three times in four races. He also is the only Hendrick driver to win a race segment this season and currently sits second in the standings.

When Texas A&M entered the SEC in 2012, the Aggies did so with a splash, winning at Auburn, at Mississippi State and at Alabama in a three-week stretch at the end of October and beginning of November behind Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Johnny Manziel. An 11-1 record put them in the Cotton Bowl, where they defeated Oklahoma 41-13.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is Georgia

Earnhardt Jr is unequivocally NASCAR’s most popular driver and one of the prohibitive favorites to win NASCAR’s biggest prize before each season. Unfortunately for the son of a seven-time champion, the breaks have just never gone Dale Jr’s way. His best finish was third back in 2003 and he has only finished the season in the top 5 once in the last 11 seasons.

Georgia is constantly one of the hottest trending picks to turn it around and compete for the championship at the start of each season. Despite the national preseason hype, Georgia has finished in the top 5 in the final AP poll just twice in the last 10 seasons and has played in the SEC championship game only twice in the last 11 seasons, losing both games.

Kasey Kahne is Tennessee

Ever since joining Hendrick in 2012, Kahne was thought to be the next up-and-coming driver for the team and seemed like that would come to fruition when he found victory lane twice in 2012 and again in 2013, finishing the 2012 season fourth in the standings. Kahne has since fallen off, winning just once in 2014 and he hasn’t won a race since. He didn’t qualify for the Chase in 2015 or 2016 and only qualified in 2014 because he won the final race before the Chase field was set. Every year seems to be the year that Kahne is finally going to get back to winning but it has yet to happen.

Like Kahne, Tennessee is normally thought of as that team who is finally going to get back to being an elite program at the beginning of each season. Instead, the Volunteers won seven or less games in each season from 2008-2014 and finished under .500 in five of those seven seasons. Tennessee hasn’t reached double digits in wins since winning 10 games in 2007.

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While Hendrick has suffered early in the season, it is hard to imagine that the team won’t have at least one representative at Homestead when the NASCAR season crowns its 2017 champion, just like the SEC having a representative in the college football playoff. After all, Johnson has seven titles and the SEC did win six bowl games, a national semi-final and lost the national championship in the final seconds.

Comments? Questions? You can leave them here or email Ryan at ryanisley23@gmail.com. You can also connect with him on Twitter @isley23.