Commentary

Hendrick gang streaks into Sonoma

Updated: June 22, 2014, 1:18 PM ET
By Joe Breeze | ESPN.com

SONOMA, Calif. -- The mighty Hendrick Motorsports machine barrels into Northern California with one goal in mind:

Extend the streak.

The streak is the five-win bonanza that HMS will ride into Sunday's Toyota/Save Mart 350 (3 p.m. ET, TNT) at Sonoma Raceway. It's the Sprint Cup Series' longest win streak since the Hendrick juggernaut won six in a row in 2007 -- a modern-era record.

Leading the charge Sunday? That would be six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time champion Jeff Gordon.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jonathan Ferrey/NASCAR/Getty ImagesWill Jimmie Johnson wheel-hop his way to a fourth Sprint Cup victory in five races?

This year's windfall started with Gordon's victory at Kansas Speedway on May 10. Johnson then won at Charlotte and Dover, Dale Earnhardt Jr. prevailed at Pocono, and Johnson triumphed for the third time in four races last week at Michigan, a track he'd never won at.

Without question, no team should be feared more than the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have been operating at an elite level. And they do have one win at the 1.99-mile Cali road course (2010).

But Johnson is quick to recognize the wide-open nature of this event; nine different winners have visited Victory Lane here over the past nine races.

"It's been such a different race the last five or six years when you look at the winners. People you might not put into that road course ringer category, myself included," Johnson told reporters Friday. "I won, Martin [Truex Jr.], Clint [Bowyer], Kasey Kahne was in there at some point. More traditional oval guys, so I think this is the hardest race to pick yet.

"Then when you add the fuel strategy that typically plays in, that shakes it up, as well. I think all four of our Hendrick cars will be capable of it, and we certainly want to keep the streak alive, but I can't pick a favorite here. I could probably pick a favorite, but I don't think there is a safe bet on a winner. I think there are 20, 25 cars that could win here."

Of course, Gordon is no slouch -- particularly at Sonoma. He is the only five-time winner here (1998-2000, '04, '06). He also holds track records for most poles (five) and most laps completed (2,117 of 2,441). Gordon has eight straight top-10s here, including two runner-up efforts in his past three attempts.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
David Taylor/Getty ImagesJeff Gordon celebrated the first of his five victories at the Sonoma road course in 1998.

Oh, did we forget to mention he's also the points leader?

A lot of the buzz in the garage regarding the Hendrick stable's success centers on its superior engine program. That line of thinking, Gordon cautioned, is misguided.

"We are driving great cars," said Gordon, the Cup series' all-time leader with nine road course wins. "I think that Rick [Hendrick] does an excellent job of hiring quality people, and I think that is behind the wheel as well as the people that work on the cars. All the way from crew chiefs to the people that build the engines and chassis. Yeah, I think you would be discrediting all of those efforts and across the board. To go down the straightaways you've got to get through the corners pretty good, too. Right now I think we are doing both. I'm pretty proud of that."

Even Earnhardt, who has zero top-10 finishes in 14 Sonoma starts, could join the Hendrick fun Sunday. He topped the speed chart for a time in the first practice session Friday, eventually settling for seventh fastest. He was tied for fourth fastest in the final practice, but qualified 17th on Saturday.

And Kasey Kahne? He could be a threat. He won the Sonoma race in 2009.

Regardless, it won't be easy for Hendrick Motorsports to earn its unrivaled sixth six-race win streak in series history.

The list of challengers is robust:

• Marcos Ambrose has won two of the past five road course races -- both at Watkins Glen -- and has a 9.3 career average finish on non-ovals. But he qualified a disappointing 23rd.

• Clint Bowyer has finished sixth or better in the past four road course races, including a victory at Sonoma in 2012. He will start 25th.

• Brad Keselowski has finished second in three of the past five road course events -- all at the Glen. He qualified 13th fastest.

• Kurt Busch, the 2011 Sonoma winner, has finished fourth or better in the past three Sonoma stops. He posted the quickest lap in the first Cup practice Friday and will start the race in the fifth position.

• Jamie McMurray will start from the pole here for the third time in his career -- and second year in a row. He was runner-up on this road course in 2004 but has finished no better than 13th in 10 other starts.

The greatest opponent for the Hendrick contingent Sunday just may be the track itself. You think Talladega is the wild card of the Cup season? Think again. With a Chase berth likely going to the winner, Sunday's shootout promises to be a slugfest.

Rest assured, the gloves will come off.

"This is one of those places where most of the time you shake your head when you're leaving here going, 'Thank goodness it's over,'" said Tony Stewart, a two-time winner on the Cali road course. "The first half of the race is a blast because everybody is being patient and they're driving like they have sense. The closer to the end of the race, the more that goes away and the more guys just try to take advantage of every situation and every hole that's available."

Double-file restarts on this tight, 10-turn circuit add a wild-card element that cannot be predicted. In other words, Johnson said, expect mayhem. And much of it.

"Yes, restarts I think we know that there is going to be chaos," said Johnson, who qualified 22nd fastest. "In [turns] 7 and 11 you go in there and you just put your head against the back of the headrest waiting to get drilled from behind. Once you get spread out and get going, this track -- once you get through the opening lap or two -- we get spread out and it's really an individual race. You are challenging yourself and your car and just getting in that zone and go.

"But restarts just breed so much chaos around here. No one is safe. I have seen guys in eighth or 10th pull out of line to pass and wheel-hop and clean out the guy in second or third. There is nowhere safe on this track on restarts."

Bowyer, one of a number of drivers who could use a win to help get into the Chase, echoed Johnson's take on restarts. The 2012 race winner will try Sunday to give Michael Waltrip Racing its third consecutive victory here. Martin Truex Jr. won the 2013 race in the No. 56 MWR Toyota.

"The restarts are completely insane," Bowyer said. "Everything has to go right. Everybody sees that on these road courses, but you really do have the reins, you have to make the right decisions out there, and if you've got a car capable of winning, by all means put it in position to win. If you don't, you go out there and overcharge corners, wheel-hop and make a dumb mistake that takes your team out of contention for a good finish."

Joey Logano, a two-time winner this season for Team Penske, summed up the collective mindset after an afternoon of beating and banging on this challenging road course: "Usually there about four or five guys that are smiling after the race and everyone else is really mad at each other, so I can't wait [laughing]."

Who'll be laughing Sunday?

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