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These are interesting times for the four drivers at Hendrick Motorsports.
With a preseason goal from owner Rick Hendrick -- a statement, really -- that he intended to get Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon in the Chase, the team is on track to make it happen. But it's still no sure bet for the HMS Chevrolets of Gordon and Kahne, and, although it's almost a foregone conclusion for Earnhardt and Johnson, everyone has plenty to drive for in these next five races.
Matt Kenseth, Roush-Fenway Racing's former champion and the driver currently second in points, said he has his eye on all the potential Chase teams.
But the HMS crew does stand out in his mind.
"There are some you worry about more than others, but certainly all four Hendrick teams are ones that you have to worry about or watch out for," he said. "As good as that organization runs, all four of those cars have won [this year], so they've proven they're all capable of winning and getting on a run and being championship contenders."
Earnhardt is in the points lead and is maintaining an attitude that Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Watkins Glen International isn't just another throwaway road race in what has been a fine season but a place at which he thinks he can do well. He qualified a respectable 16th Saturday for the race.
"I'm really happy about being in a position where now we are able to come here we had a good test," he said. "We're feeling positive about our chances of having a good run. We'll just be able to go out there and try to compete.
"There is really no pressure. So that's a good thing. That's a good feeling."
For Johnson, who will roll off third Sunday, it's a place where he can solidify his Chase place -- currently fourth, but in a tie for the lead, based on wins, if the playoffs started today -- and even take the provisional lead with four victories on the season.
And he has a shot. He has won one pole at Watkins Glen and has a victory at Sonoma, although road course racing is admittedly not his top skill.
"The tough thing here is the way the mileage works out and our fuel burn," Johnson said. "You are right on the edge of, if you get good fuel mileage, have some cautions fall for you, you can go one less stop than everyone else.
"I have yet to have that happen. I just use the throttle too much, drive the car with the throttle a lot and usually have to make that extra stop. I feel like that's hurt us, at the end of the day, be in position to win. We still get good finishes, but to win, I wish I could, we could, wherever the fault lies, get better fuel mileage."
Kahne and Gordon have high hopes at the Glen, as well, with Kahne looking for his second career road course victory and a virtually guaranteed spot in the Chase via the wild card -- the two drivers between 11th and 20th place in the standings with the most wins get in -- if he can get his third win of the season. He's hoping extra testing the team did earlier in the season will help.
"The toughest part of Watkins Glen for me is braking," said Kahne, who qualified 20th. "You get on the brakes a lot harder than at Sonoma. But we've done a lot of road course testing this year, and that's something I've worked on. Hopefully, that extra practice will help this week."
But the stakes are higher for Gordon, who qualified 12th.
|Jeff Gordon's feeling pretty good about Watkins Glen despite not winning there since 2001. He qualified 12th for Sunday's race.|
The four-time champion sits in the final wild-card transfer spot after his rain-shortened win last weekend at Pocono, but the position is precarious. Three other drivers -- Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano -- have a victory each and could knock Gordon out based on wins at any time leading up the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 16. And then there's the concern that road course aces Juan Pablo Montoya (on the pole Sunday) and Marcos Ambrose (qualified fifth) could win at the Glen and then get one more -- and, in Montoya's case, also get in the top 20 -- before the Chase begins to sneak by.
Of those six drivers, however, Gordon is the only one to have won at Watkins Glen more than once. Problem is, his latest of four victories at the 2.45-mile, seven-turn track near the tip of Seneca Lake was more than a decade ago. But hope springs for the 24 team.
"I am very optimistic and excited about this weekend, but just because we won here however many years ago it was doesn't mean that my confidence is sky-high here because I don't feel like we've been good enough to win here in recent years," he said. "That confidence definitely got a big boost in Sonoma [where he finished sixth in June] and our road course test that we did in Road Atlanta prior to Sonoma. I feel like we have made some big gains that are definitely going to help my confidence here."
Tony Stewart has won more races at Watkins Glen than any other driver -- five -- and the 2011 Sprint Cup Series champion is wary of Gordon and his team after last week's win.
"Well, the first thing is they've got Jeff Gordon, so as long as Jeff is in the equation, it doesn't matter who he is with, you can't count him out," said Stewart, whose Stewart-Haas Racing team gets its engines and chassis from HMS. "The second thing is you've got an organization that knows how to win, knows how to win championships.
"There is always that potential. Anytime those cars are in the Chase, there is potential that they can win the championship. I wouldn't count him out yet."
And that probably goes for any of the four drivers at Hendrick Motorsports.