The NASCAR offseason began Monday, and one of the biggest challenges facing teams will be finding a way to beat juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports.
Jimmie Johnson won a second consecutive championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, culminating an 18-win season for car owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon, the championship runner-up, combined for an astounding 16 victories.
A promising and perhaps foretelling sign for 2008 was that a Hendrick driver did not win the Ford 400 season finale. Gordon and Johnson won six of the season's final seven races. But Victory Lane belonged to Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth at Homestead.
Owner Jack Roush knows dominance. His five drivers all made the Chase for the Cup in 2005 and won 15 races that season and have experienced a drop-off in performance since. He said Hendrick's magic won't last.
''We think we'll be able to close any gap,'' Roush said. ``This is a momentum sport. You have things going for you for a while. [Hendrick] executed brilliantly, but they also missed more wrecks than my guys did that weren't anybody's fault, and they'll have to give some of those back going forward. Hopefully, we'll be able to reap the benefits of some more Cinderella years where nothing will go wrong.''
Other teams besides Roush's that could unseat Hendrick include Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. An unknown is how Gibbs will fare changing manufacturers to Toyota from Chevrolet. Gibbs should be stronger with the addition of 22-year-old wunderkind Kyle Busch, who is being replaced at Hendrick by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Busch was emphatic in saying Gibbs would be on par with Hendrick.
''I don't believe I would have signed with a team that wouldn't be able to challenge them,'' Busch said.
Childress Racing was the only team to put all of its drivers in the Chase, but needs to improve its Car of Tomorrow program. Beginning next season, teams will race the NASCAR-designed next generation car full-time.
Even though no team threatened Hendrick in 2007, the owner knows keeping the magic next season won't be easy. Hours before the NASCAR finale, he already was outlining plans with his teams.
''We can't come back just like we are,'' Hendrick said. ``We're going to have to be better. We're going to have to look at every area of our company and all of our teams and figure out where we're a little weak, or we're not going to be able to compete at the level we have this year.''
Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said it's time to start thinking about the Daytona 500 in February.
''You can't lose sight of the fact that next year is coming,'' Knaus said.
``We have to make sure we're on our game, and I want everybody to know we're on our game when we get there.''
The rest of the teams probably wouldn't mind, though, if Hendrick had an offseason hangover.