(Johnson is hungry to bring Hendrick another Sprint Cup Series championship in 2012 - Getty Images)
Jack Roush put his entire stable of then five Sprint Cup Series drivers into the 2005 Chase field.
NASCAR has since forced team owners to dial back to a four-car operation, but Rick Hendrick believes there’s no reason why his whole fleet can’t make this year’s playoffs.
Optimism always runs high at this time of the season as organizations prepare for the upcoming campaign. But Hendrick is unusually pumped up about the prospects for 2012 and what the quartet of Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and newcomer Kasey Kahne can accomplish.
I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t have all four cars in the Chase and I’m going to be really disappointed if we don’t win the championship,” Hendrick said. “I can’t remember having four teams this solid, this strong, at the beginning of the year.
“I think we’re as prepared as we’ve ever been and if we don’t get it, it's going to be our fault.”
After a season that saw Johnson’s five year reign as Sprint Cup Series champ come to a halt, the entire Hendrick group seems to be re-energized to put the team back on top again in 2012.
Hendrick’s positive outlook that the goal can be accomplished in due in large part to the elimination of some unknown quantities that lingered heading into the 2011 effort.
"Looking at last year, I didn't know how Dale and (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) were going to work,” Hendrick said. “I didn't know how Jeff and (crew chief Alan (Gustafson) were going to work. I thought they would be good, and they were much better than I anticipated.
"I had Mark (Martin), knowing it was his last year. I had Kasey waiting to come. I didn't know if we were going to get (crew chief) Kenny (Francis), and then I get Kenny and their engineer and Kasey, and they are here and they're fitting in like they've been here forever. Then all of the sudden, I know, I've got a better 88 team. I've got a better 24 team. I've got a pissed-off 48 team, and I've got a something-to-prove 5 team with a guy who had one of the best Chases of anybody. So that gives me the confidence that, if we don't blow it up, we're going to be good."
Johnson has made no bones about the fact that he’s using last year’s result as motivation for the coming season. The anger that came from not having his name engraved on the Sprint Cup trophy for the first time in five seasons is pushing Johnson hard at the dawn of a new year.
“Yeah, and we're pissed off at ourselves," said Johnson. "There could be a lot of good coming from this."
Johnson sees it as a time to learn from mistakes and in a way re-invent himself as a driver.
“Through losing the championship last year, I think I can strip some layers down and figure out how to do things differently,” he said.
“There’s a lot that I’ve thought about and once I get into the season I’ll know more and really be able to work through those things,” Johnson continued. “But I feel like over the five years of winning championships, there are certain things, even as basic as the way I approach a weekend and the notes I take and what I do from a driver’s standpoint, that’s all been well documented. Every driver does it now. Were they doing it then? No.
“I need to find new ways to do a better job as the driver of the 48 car and that’s what this year is about for me. That’s what this offseason was about for me. Really, the first half of the season is going to be about understanding how I can do my job better.”
Earnhardt thinks he and the entire No. 88 team can also do better. Although they made tremendous improvements last season in a performance that saw Earnhardt make the Chase and ultimately finish seventh in the final standings, the sport’s Most Popular Driver sees even more success in 2012.
“We definitely took a step in the right direction with the changes we made last year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t know what our potential is past that, but we’re going to work hard to see if we can find it and find more and be more competitive. We were close to winning a few races and hadn’t had that in a long time.
“Working with Steve, he gave me the opportunity, whether it was our strong performance or his strategy, one way or another, he’s given me the chance I didn’t have. I felt closer to winning than I felt before.”
Gordon was able to win and once he broke the winless drought he was engulfed in the previous season, the four-time champion showed several flashes of brilliance throughout the schedule.
He also brings a great deal of confidence into 2012 after last season’s effort and shares his employer’s optimism about the entire organization.
However with that view there does come a bit of stress.
“I agree with Rick, it’s the strongest combination we’ve ever had coming into a season, and when you see that, it gives you some pretty high expectations and puts the pressure on,” Gordon said.
Kahne and Francis don’t appear to be feeling any pressure as the new kids in the house. The duo has already made it clear they are quite at home at Hendrick turning in a very impressive Daytona testing performance last month.
Kahne knows there will be growing pains but believes he is in the best position of his Sprint Cup career to excel.
“It definitely takes time because it's all different,” Kahne said. “The way they build the parts and pieces and the way that feels to me and the way I relay that to Kenny, that's something that takes time, and hopefully it doesn't take us too long.
“The biggest thing is the stability and knowing that I have four years here where I just need to make the best out of it” I need to put all the effort that I have into it. It could be my best four years ever.”
Hendrick has ten Sprint Cup championship trophies in his possession and the way he sees it not getting number eleven last season may actually have been a good thing overall.
“Getting beat sometimes is not a bad thing,” he said. “If you’re a very competitive company, you got to know you’ve got to work a lot harder to get back to where you were. So we’re motivated.”
That could be bad news for the rest of the Sprint Cup garage area.
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