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Drew Bonifant

Drew Bonifant: Hendrick Motorsports sets sights on Loudon for strong start to Chase

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with his crew after the final practice before Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Saturday, July 13, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks with his crew after the final practice before Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup auto race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Saturday, July 13, 2013 in Loudon, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

No Sprint Cup team is a better bet to have one of its drivers holding the championship trophy at the end of the season than Hendrick Motorsports. The powerhouse has the points leader in Jimmie Johnson, as well as three other drivers who are either in line for a playoff spot or are mere points away.

So with the Chase approaching, Hendrick had to select a track to get a head start on. And the team, as a whole, chose New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

All four Hendrick drivers were at Loudon last Wednesday to test out the track, in the hopes of learning a few tricks and perfecting their strategy before returning in September for the Chase race. There were some requirements to heed before making the decision, as NASCAR rules state that all drivers on a team must train at the same track. If Johnson wanted Loudon but Kasey Kahne wanted Dover, for instance, they’d have to talk it out and pick one.

Naturally, that opens up the

possibility for one driver to be happy with the choice and the rest to be settling for it. But that wasn’t the case.

“I think, as a company, we all wanted to run better here,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., the only driver on the team without a win at the Magic Mile. “It was a really easy decision.”

New Hampshire’s been favorable to Hendrick, and the team’s last trip up in July was no exception. Johnson (sixth) and Jeff Gordon (10th) registered top-10 finishes, with Johnson rising from dead last to salvage his, while Kahne (11th) and Earnhardt Jr. (14th) had decent days on the track. Historically speaking, Gordon and Johnson own three victories apiece there, while Kahne essentially clinched his Chase berth last year with a July win there.

Loudon certainly had competition. Hendrick could have tried to capitalize on its advantage at Fort Worth or Phoenix, the two Chase tracks each driver has won on. It could have picked Martinsville, where Johnson (average finish of 5.3) and Gordon (average of 7.0) have thrived. Or the team could have put its time into figuring out Homestead, where Johnson, Kahne and Earnhardt Jr. are winless and Gordon went 13 races before finally winning last year.

But Loudon’s significance is two-fold. One reason is the timing. As the second venue in the Chase, it’s a make-or-break track, where the winner becomes an automatic Chase favorite and a bad finish can mean an early end to title hopes.

The other reason also relates to timing: September races in New Hampshire mean a variety of climates, all of which can occur in just one weekend. Each type of weather can mean a different kind of race, and having an approach for each can pay off.

“It’s tough. Even on a race weekend, the track changes so much from the Saturday practice session into the Sunday race,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, we’re making smart decisions here (now) at the green track in cool temps, so when we come back, we can be in the right space. … This is a tricky track to get right, and grip level is so important.

“We don’t have a clear-cut answer right now, we’re still trying to develop all of that and get a good foundation to work from so when we come back we can be in the ballpark.”

On the brink, again

It’s been a year of tough breaks for Gordon, and now the veteran driver is in a white-knuckle position that’s starting to become familiar.

Gordon once rivaled teammate Johnson’s proficiency on the track, winning four titles in seven years and remaining a championship threat well after his last win in 2001. He was third in the standings in 2009, and he was tied for third on the circuit with three wins in 2011.

For the second year in a row, however, Gordon’s been tasked with having to fight and claw his way into the Chase. His 2012 year saw him win only a rain-shortened race during the regular season, and 2013 has included no wins and a fall to 14th in the standings.

Each time he’s taken the track, his season has been on the line. It’s been a grind, and Gordon admitted it’s been getting to him.

“It’s been a rough season for us; we have not had a lot of things go well,” he said. “It’s hard to get yourself excited about gaining momentum and getting confidence in things starting to go your way because it seems like every time we do get things to go our way, something kind of disrupts that.”

Gordon’s tone included a measure of exasperation, no surprise given the four crashes and five DNFs that have threatened to derail his season. But Gordon doesn’t rule himself out. He eked his way into the Chase last fall and posted four top-fives and a win during it, and he knows he’s only a race away from pulling off another run.

“I hope over the next four or five weeks we can put it together and kind of start over,” he said. “I think we showed (last year) what we’re capable of when we do get into the Chase. That’s why we’ve got to keep fighting.”

Three up

Joey Logano – It’s hard to help yourself better than Logano did in Michigan. With just one win, a season that appeared bound for disappointment turned into one that the 23-year-old, who’s 13th and only seven points out of a playoff spot, has a good chance of salvaging.

Kurt Busch – He’s got three straight top-10 finishes, two of which resulted in third-place outings, and he’s now ninth in the standings. Add in the fact that the next track is Bristol, where he’s won five times, and Busch has a lot to be happy about.

Brad Keselowski – The champ is starting to drive like one. He finished sixth at Pocono and second at Watkins Glen, then led 17 laps before finishing 12th in Michigan. He’s still winless, but he’s eighth in the standings and trending up.

Three down

Ryan Newman – Finishes of 14th and 13th are hardly terrible, but they were enough to knock Newman out of line for the final wild card berth for the Chase. He’s still very much alive in 15th place, but he’ll have to climb.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Junior got a pair of black eyes with a 30th-place effort at Watkins Glen and a 36th-place showing in Michigan (where he won last year). He’s still in position for the Chase, but only by 20 points. Now is not the time to start slipping.

Kyle Busch – It’s been a weird season for the younger Busch. His three wins are second best in Sprint Cup and his 10 top-fives are unmatched. At the same time, he has six finishes of 30th or worse, including last week’s 31st-place mess in Michigan.

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at 369-3340 or at abonifant@cmonitor.com, or via Twitter @dbonifant.)

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