Hendrick Motorsports finds some much-needed speed at Michigan

Rick Hendrick vowed at Bristol Motor Speedway he would turn things around at Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick Motorsports finds some much-needed speed at Michigan
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Rick Hendrick
Car of Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, during inspection
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crash
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
The car of Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet after his engine problems

After 18 races without a win — and only one team locked into the playoffs with three races to determine the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff field — it was time to reevaluate. 

It’s not from a lack of effort — because the effort is there.

Kasey Kahne on 2016 struggles

Hendrick didn’t wait on the sidelines for his employees to dig in, he joined the troops.

“We have been struggling this year,” Hendrick said. “We haven’t been as good as we wanted to be — as we should be— and I have committed to everyone in the organization. I was in the wind tunnel the other night. I’ve got up at 4:30 in the morning. I’ve been at the shop with the guys.

“We know we have the ingredients. We’re not satisfied. We’re going to do whatever it takes.”

Noticeable improvement at MIS

Clearly, HMS hit on something prior to this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway. All four teams advanced to the final round of qualifying for the first time since Talladega Superspeedway in April — and the only race with an open engine all season.

Jimmie Johnson, the only Hendrick driver to win races this season, qualified second for the Pure Michigan 400 on Friday. In 29 starts at the two-mile track, Johnson has qualified considerably better at Michigan than he has finished. His average starting position in 9.7 with one win, five top fives and 11 top-10 finishes.

Still, Johnson, who is currently ninth in the standings, believes the organization is showing signs of a recovery. 

“I’m living it, so I guess I’m looking for those little signs and rays of light and maybe others don’t see it,” Johnson said. “And I really try hard not to BS you guys when you ask the questions; but I could say in the last couple of months, we have seen some bright spots. 

“We just need a little more consistency with it; and then most importantly, stop making mistakes. I’m part of that as well.”

Kahne in need of a win

Kasey Kahne is cautiously optimistic. Currently 16th in the standings, he hasn’t won a race in the last two years. Kahne agrees with Johnson that HMS is gaining from where the organization was earlier this year. However, Kahne is still searching for long-term stability.

“My car, in particular, is night and day from the first race here,” Kahne said. “I think that goes into car, engine and set-up — a lot of it set-up as well. Really happy with the improvements that the 5 team has made and I know a lot of those improvements come from HMS and what they’re doing with the chassis, bodies, all the parts and pieces and Mr. Hendrick pushing everybody and standing behind everyone.”

Although racing is cyclical, Kahne admits the lack of performance out of the Hendrick stables is curious. Before Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sidelined five races ago, the driver had dropped from 6th in the standings to 13th in his last 10 races. His progress was stalled by three DNFs. 

Chase Elliott, once considered a lock in the Chase after 11 top 10s in the first 15 races, has also slid in the standings. In the last seven races, the rookie has dropped from sixth in the standings to 12th.  

Then there’s Kahne. The 36-year-old veteran has just a pair of fourth-place finishes and six top 10s to show for his season. 

“It’s kind of surprising to see something like that — that lack of speed between the cars,” Kahne said. “From my side, I’ve raced against HMS my whole career. Now I’m with them. But I’ve never really seen anything like that. That was surprising. But it’s not like people are working harder today than they were a month ago because that’s all that anyone in NASCAR — anyone at HMS does is work. There’s so little time for anything else. 

“But I think they’re working in the right areas and when you have your boss, your owner, that guy standing there with you, helping or at least talking to you and encouraging you, I think that has benefitted everyone as well. I wouldn’t say they’re working harder, we’re finally getting back to where we kind of need to be and want to be.  The 5, itself, we need to keep working on our own team. I think this weekend has been a big gain for us.”

Why the No. 5 has struggled

Unlike his three Hendrick teammates, Kahne has not been in the top 10 in the standings all season. In 23 races, he has not led a single circuit despite completing 97.6-percent of all laps raced. And after 13 years on the Cup tour, Kahne can’t point to just one area that has kept the No. 5 team from being competitive. 

“There’s so many things,” Kahne said. “Everyone is like,“Oh, if you drove a little harder. If this was different.’ And that’s not even it. There are so many people that are part of each team and the organization and if they get behind us a little bit. For us, it has been so many areas, so many things that add up to being four-tenths off per lap — often. 

“It’s not from a lack of effort — because the effort is there. But it’s maybe working in the right areas or trying to understand things that will make it easier for me to drive for my driving style. That has been a huge part of the last couple of years. ‘What will help Kasey? What will help him with his car because he drives a little different.’ I feel like this weekend we’ve kind of done our thing and it seems to be working pretty well so far.”

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