|Dale Earnhardt Jr. has accepted responsibility for taking out teammate Jeff Gordon at Bristol. (US Presswire)|
This is not the way Hendrick Motorsports was supposed to start the year.
In January team owner Rick Hendrick boldly predicted all four of his drivers would make the Chase and another Sprint Cup Series championship would be his at season's end.
Four races into 2012 the mighty Hendrick quartet is going to have its hands full trying to fulfill that prediction.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the best of the bunch, sitting in a tie for fifth place as the series readies for the weekend's trip to Auto Club Speedway.
But the rest of his teammates are way down in the standings. Jimmie Johnson is 17th, while Jeff Gordon is 23rd and Kasey Kahne is 32nd.
Johnson's total reflects the 25-point penalty NASCAR handed down after Daytona 500 prerace inspections, and although he's been in the Top 10 the last three weeks, the five-time champion still has a long climb ahead.
Gordon tumbled further down the standings after his run-in, with of all people, Earnhardt on Sunday in Bristol. The lap 359 tangle sent Gordon into the wall and out of the race, sparking controversy that Earnhardt took for responsibility for starting.
"I absolutely feel responsible," Earnhardt said. "I got into his door a little bit. We were racing and having a good time, to be honest with you. I put the pipes up against the left rear tire of his car, and knocked the sidewall out of it. I hate ... I feel bad about that. I'm going to have to do some damage control this week. I know Jeff understands what was going on out there, but his boys work real hard on their car, and they had a good run going."
In addition to Gordon's damaged racecar, the relationship between Earnhardt and the four-time champ may also be in need of some repair.
"I'll just have to sit down and talk to him and see where he's at. I've got to own up to my responsibility in the situation, which I will, and go from there," he said.
For Kahne, the only place to go has to be up after a dismal start to what was supposed to be a triumphant first season with the Hendrick organization.
But his first four races have been riddled with problems, bad luck and crashes. On Sunday, Kahne was caught up in an early race accident with Regan Smith and others.
"This is the worst way I could start a season," said a frustrated Kahne. "To have the fastest car every single week and something happens. Right there, there is no reason to force the issue at all. I'm just taking my time just cutting the bottom. Simple. I'm under Regan Smith, as slow as he was, I knew when my spotter cleared me in the center I would be clear on exit. He said 'all clear good to go.' So when I get to the exit I knew Regan [Smith] was slow and then he was back there. I listened too much to my spotter I guess.
"I hate it for everybody. It's really disappointing and discouraging to have as fast of race cars as I have and not have nothing to show for it."
Kahne can take some solace in the fact that, for the most part, neither do the rest of his teammates.
|Took over the Chase lead by 20 points thanks to a sixth place finish and Jimmie Johnson?s misfortune. This is now the Penske Racing driver?s championship to lose.|
|Saw his seven point lead evaporate thanks to a cut tire and trip into the wall on Sunday. Johnson now must hope a similar such fate happens to Keselowski next week at Homestead to have any shot at a sixth title.|
|Nearly ran the table in Phoenix by leading all practices and taking the pole had he been able to win the race. But a poor decision on lane choice for a late restart cost Busch a shot at Victory Lane.|
|Ending the year on a positive note but wasn?t able to match his Phoenix victory of last November. Still a solid day with a fourth place performance.|
|Was the victim of Jeff Gordon?s revenge that completely eliminated Bowyer from championship contention. He wasn?t an angel in the turn of events but Bowyer definitely got the worst of the situation.|
|Hamlin?s second place finish in Phoenix a welcome rebound from two weeks of disappointment for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. He?ll be a factor for a win next Sunday in Homestead.|
|Snapped a 44-race winless drought with Sunday?s win ironically coming on the weekend when reports of his evacuation from Richard Childress Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 broke out.|
|A decent day for ?The Biff? in Phoenix, who was able to dodge all the last lap craziness to bring home his Roush Fenway Racing Ford seventh.|
|Minding his own business until getting swept up in the Gordon-Bowyer fight. Logano was on his way to a nice effort to follow up his ninth Nationwide Series win on Saturday.|
|Rough way to earn a fifth place finish as Newman was one of the unfortunate souls to get caught in the last lap crash on the main straightaway.|
|Not a god day at all for Smoke who spun late after making contact racing for position. A 19th place finish for Stewart.|
|Will make the final Sprint Cup start of his career for Roush Fenway Racing next week at Homestead on the heels of a 14th place effort in Phoenix.|
|13||Martin Truex Jr.||10|
|His race was over nearly before it started with a blown engine. After a stellar regular season Truex Jr. has suffered mightily throughout the Chase.|
|An 11th place finish for Edwards as he brings to a close one of the most disappointing seasons in his career.|