(Jimmie Johnson's run for a sixth straight Sprint Cup Series championship in 2011 came up short for Hendrick)
For the first time since the 2005 season Hendrick Motorsports did not celebrate a Sprint Cup championship.
Jimmie Johnson’s amazing run of five straight titles came to an end last season putting a period on one of the most incredible accomplishments in sports.
"Just thinking about it, like wow, it really is over," Johnson said. "I'm disappointed that it is over but very proud of what this team has done. What we have done over the last, really, 10 years, the last five obviously stand out, but what we have done as a group over the 10-year run so far has been truly amazing."
Johnson did make the Chase as did his Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. but none of the trio was really able to mount a run at the title.
Johnson’s regular season included 17 top five finishes including a victories at Talladega and Kansas. But once the playoffs began, Johnson could not muster the championship magic that brought him titles from 2006 through 2010.
“We had a lot of things that happened with the wreck in Charlotte and Talladega,” team owner Rick Hendrick said analyzing Johnson’s Chase performance. “We played our cards wrong at Talladega, our whole organization did, to have cars as good as we had and end up where we did. But that’s racing. I think when you’ve tasted the success they have, and now you’ve been beat, you’ve got to go to work, and you’ve got to come back stronger.”
Jeff Gordon came back to perform stronger in 2011 than he has in recent years and scored three victories with new crew chief Alan Gustafson.
It marked the first time Gordon had put together a multiple win season since 2007.
Gordon’s victory in the second race of the season at Phoenix kicked off the solid season that also included wins at Pocono as well as an historic effort at Atlanta when the four-time series champion registered his eighty fifth career victory.
The win put Gordon alone in third-place on the all-time series victory list and he was overwhelmed by the presentation from NASCAR president Mike Helton in victory lane.
"Everybody knows when Mike Helton speaks he has a way with words," Gordon said. "So to be up there, get presented that beautiful plaque that they put together with all the victories, just looking back on all the people that have contributed to it from Hendrick Motorsports, different crew chiefs and crew members and guys in the engine shop. I mean, it’s a team effort."
But despite carrying tremendous momentum into the Chase, Gordon stumbled and in the end was eighth in the final point standings.
"It's just disappointing because I feel like Alan is a guy that deserves a championship and deserves to be up there battling for one,” Gordon said. “He proved it with Mark (Martin) and I thought we were going to prove it this year with the way we were running leading into the Chase so it's disappointing, but I'm hoping that next year now having a year under our belt and we get along well. I've got just a ton of respect and belief in him and I feel the same thing is in return that puts us in position to have a great year next year."
Like Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoyed a comeback season that saw the sport’s perennial most popular driver make the Chase for the first time in three seasons.
While Earnhardt wasn’t able to end his now three year winless drought, he was as competitive as he’s ever been during his tenure at Hendrick and finished the campaign seventh in the standings.
Earnhardt gave much of the credit for his turnaround to the relationship shared with new crew chief Steve Letarte, who took the reigns of the No. 88 team last season.
"We just have a lot in common and our personalities make it where it seems like it's easy for us to have a conversation," Earnhardt said. "I've been spending a ton of time around the hauler all day long during each day on Friday and Saturday and when you're sitting there you just never know when that idea or that thought is going to come into your head or come into [Letarte's] head about what might really be able to help the car.
"And if you just sit around long enough, eventually it's going to pop up and I want to be there for that conversation; I don't want him texting me on the phone while I'm in the bus going, 'Hey, I think I know what we can do.' I want to be there so that I can understand and talk about it. I think that's helping us."
Unfortunately the lone Hendrick driver to not make the Chase last season was veteran Mark Martin, who ended his tenure with the organization in 2011.
Martin and crew chief Lance McGrew struggled to find the right balance most of the season. Martin, who will join Michael Waltrip Racing next season, finished the year with only a pair of top 5 finishes.
Martin’s departure makes way for Kasey Kahne to take the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet. After a one year stint at Red Bull Racing, which included a November victory at Phoenix, Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis bring their considerable chemistry to the Hendrick organization.
"I'll be so excited and happy to get back in a race car, it's crazy," Kahne said. "Joining Hendrick is exciting. It feels good. They've given me such a good opportunity, I need to take full advantage of it and perform. It may take a little bit of time to figure everything out, but I think we can get off to a pretty quick start."
Kahne figures to be a formidable foe for all of his Hendrick teammates including Johnson, who is using the end of his championship streak as motivation in 2012.
“We have a lot to learn from this year and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and I have already been in meetings throughout this last week setting up wish lists of what we think we can do better, how we can do a better job at it,” Johnson said. “We are moving forward on next year and figuring out how we can dissect weak spots, if it is on track, you know pit calls have changed dramatically this year, what can I do differently as a driver, all those different components, we are addressing and working on them now.”
Gordon also plans on taking what was accomplished in 2011 as a foundation to build for a better new season.
"It's easy for us to be hanging our heads and think about the disappointments, but I'm also reminded and encouraged of how great of a year this has been for us," Gordon said. "With the three wins -- we did have incredible momentum coming into the Chase so I think as a competitor and as a race team, we certainly are very focused on what we did wrong and what we're going to do to make it better next year."
And season number two of the Earnhardt-Letarte combination also comes with high hopes from the duo.
“We learned a lot last year and had some success,” said Letarte. “We didn’t finish the job by winning races or the championship but I’m very convinced this race team can accomplish those goals in 2012.”
Only by Hendrick’s high standards could 2011 be considered a down season for the organization. That will happen when you take home five straight titles. But the entire four-car stable should all be considered championship contenders heading into the new season and the entire quartet could very well be in the Chase. All eyes will be on newcomer Kahne as he finally gets an opportunity to run with a stable and solid team, something that was missing during his tenures at Richard Petty Motorsports and Red Bull. Johnson is determined to snap back to championship form while Gordon and Earnhardt bring positive momentum and confidence into 2012. Overall this powerhouse team will be a major factor in the coming season.
CHECK OUT MORE POSTS FROM OUR 2011 TEAM REVIEW/2012 PREVIEW SERIES
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