Will this finally be the year all four Hendrick Motorsports entries qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup?

Team owner Rick Hendrick certainly thinks so.

And if you had seen the dog-and-pony show at the Hendrick shop on Wednesday - one of the whistle stops on the four-day Sprint Cup Media Tour - you'd think so, too.

Up on stage in front of a packed house, dressed in starched, white shirts that differed from each other only in their sponsor logos, sat the four drivers who will fly the Hendrick colours in 2009: Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, arranged in stair-step order according to height.

If ever there was a "Dream Team" in stock car racing, this is it - with no apologies to the talent at Roush Fenway Racing and elsewhere. Among them, the four Hendrick drivers have racked up 174 Cup victories and seven championships (four for Gordon and the last three for Johnson).

These are familiar faces, even to a casual fan of stock car racing - with one exception. Jimmie Johnson looked more like Jeremiah Johnson with his dark, 60-day growth of beard. For Johnson, it has become custom not to shave during the offseason.

Martin is the latest addition, and in Hendrick's mind, he's the missing puzzle piece that will elevate all four teams to the same level of excellence. Pure and simple, Hendrick expects Martin's team, led by crew chief Alan Gustafson, to make the Chase this year.

He expects Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. to do the same in their second year with the organisation. They did so last year in their first season with Hendrick.

"I absolutely do," Hendrick affirmed. "You can't help bad luck, and you can't help things that can happen along the way, but I am convinced after watching Mark Martin and Alan Gustafson - how good he is - and Tony and Dale.

"For a four-car line-up, you couldn't ask for a better mix than this. If we give them what they need, and we're planning on it, I'd be disappointed - barring bad luck. Any one of those teams that didn't make the Chase would be a disappointment."

For his part, Gustafson is thrilled at the prospect of working with a driver with Martin's talent and pedigree.

"I think he's as talented a race-car driver as there is on the racetrack," Gustafson said. "When you talk about raw talent, he's as good as anybody. He's as smart as anybody. He's in as good shape as anybody. Mark brings everything, and we know that. People can talk about him being 50 years old all they want. That does not matter. I know 30-year-olds that can't hold a candle to him."

The Hendrick teams have a secret weapon, too. As suppliers of engines and chassis to Stewart-Haas Racing, they'll have a source of feedback that should prove considerably more valuable than the information Hendrick got from Stewart-Haas predecessor, Haas CNC Racing. Both Stewart-Haas crew chiefs, Darian Grubb (Tony Stewart) and Tony Gibson (Ryan Newman), have strong ties to Hendrick Motorsports.

Grubb, who was Casey Mears' crew chief at HMS in 2007 and co-ordinated race engineering in 2008, described the Hendrick-Stewart affiliation as a "six-car team" when it comes to engines and chassis.

"You've got people over there where we can understand how they think," Eury said. "Tony Gibson... I kind of know where he's coming from, and Darian... we kind of know what his thoughts are, and he knows what we run over here. That information is going to be a lot closer to the setups that we run.

"We'll be getting a lot of information out of it, and that's going to be a big benefit."

If Rick Hendrick is right, and the organisation has the talent and the tools to put four cars in the Chase, that leaves eight spots for the rest of the Cup garage.

Wait a minute. Roush Fenway owner Jack Roush also said he'll be disappointed if all five of his drivers don't qualify for NASCAR's postseason. Given key personnel changes that should help Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray, given David Ragan's growth as a driver and given Greg Biffle's consistent speed, it's hard to argue with Roush.

If both organisations live up to the expectations of their owners, the rest of the Cup teams will be fighting for table scraps in 2009.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News



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