Dale Earnhardt Jr., was surprised to hear Friday he’s the only Hendrick Motorsports driver with a top-five finish in the past three Sprint Cup races.
That doesn’t mean, however, Earnhardt or his colleagues are in denial about being off their own standard for excellence.
“The (Joe) Gibbs guys have found more speed over the last few weeks to be a lot stronger,” Earnhardt said. “We’re not at the top of the mountain, at least by ourselves, anymore.
“We need to find speed of our own to combat that. ... Seems like we had an advantage last year in the engines, and now it’s not there.”
Joe Gibbs Racing, and driver Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota team in particular, have dominated the past month. Busch has won four of the past five races after fracturing his left foot and right leg in a horrific crash to start the season at Daytona.
Hendrick’s four drivers haven’t been bad, per se: Jimmie Johnson has won four of 20 races so far, and Earnhardt has won two. But Jeff Gordon, in his last full-time season as a Sprint Cup driver, and teammate Kasey Kahne have yet to win. Gordon was seventh, ninth and 42nd in his past three starts. Kahne was 27th, 19th and 24th.
That’s just not the standard from team owner Rick Hendrick on down. Earnhardt called it “a mad scramble to be ready for the Chase.”
“I’d love to be three-tenths (of a second) faster than everybody and just be fighting with my teammates for the win,” Earnhardt said. “We can be honest with ourselves that we’re definitely not where we want to be.
“I’m not too worried about it: We have the best resources, the best boss man – he doesn’t quit and he doesn’t settle for second. He’s in there pushing everybody every day.”
There has been some bad luck. Fifty laps into the race in Indianapolis, Gordon’s Chevrolet ended up in the wall as he attempted to avoid Clint Bowyer’s car. Gordon’s No. 24 suffered so much front-end damage that NASCAR warned him he was driving below minimum acceptable speeds.
Gordon’s crew finally took the car to the garage for major repairs, leading to the 42nd-place finish.
Earnhardt mentioned unspecified pit-stop problems, which he said were addressed this week but still could linger.
Earnhardt said the drivers and key crew members for all four Hendrick teams meet collectively each Tuesday to review, analyze and share information. That happens whether the teams are thriving or struggling.
Having won the two 2014 races at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt seemingly would be best equipped among Hendrick drivers to break through at the track on Sunday. But his team didn’t like its setup in practice Friday and was tinkering with how to get back to what’s optimum at Pocono.
Gordon sounded less than rock certain he’ll get that win that would clinch a Chase spot.
“I was feeling a lot more secure going into Indianapolis,” Gordon said. “Obviously having a bad finish like that can change things in a hurry.”