NASCAR & Auto Racing

KINGS OF THE TRACK

Every NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team will be chasing Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, and that includes the other teams driving Chevrolets, too.

¡§You¡¦re definitely trying to catch up,¡¨ Kevin Harvick said. ¡§You have to. Those guys have won the championship the last couple years. ... They¡¦re what everybody is shooting for. Any time you¡¦re the champion, you kind of come in with a target on your back and everybody is shooting for you. Everybody knows that they have to get better, and in order to do that, you have to beat those cars.¡¨

Good luck with that.

All Hendrick¡¦s four teams did in 2007 was win half of the 36 races and rack up 84 top-10 finishes.

It is also true that even without Hendrick¡¦s totals, the remaining Chevrolet teams in NASCAR¡¦s top series had eight wins in 2007, more than any other manufacturer.

Refigure the final manufacturers¡¦ championship points without the Hendrick cars in the mix and Chevy still would have won that title quite easily.

Yes, Joe Gibbs Racing was a big part of the non-Hendrick success, with three wins for Tony Stewart and another for Denny Hamlin. They¡¦re now with Toyota and have Kyle Busch, who also won and made the Chase in a Chevy, joining them in the Gibbs camp.

The cupboard is hardly bare beyond Hendrick.

Chevrolet re-signed key partner agreements with Richard Childress Racing, which put Harvick, Jeff Burton and breakout performer Clint Bowyer in the Chase, and with Dale Earnhardt Inc., which compensated for the loss of Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a timely step-up by Martin Truex Jr.

DEI also picked up key assets when it absorbed what was left when Ginn Racing imploded midseason.

The Hendrick empire, of course, returns the duo who dominated the Cup circuit a year ago ¡V 10-time winner and back-to-back champion Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who won six times and had a modern-era record 30 top-10 finishes.

They¡¦re joined by Casey Mears, who moves into the No.|5 cars Busch drove in 2007, and of course by Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went winless last year while being the most talked-about free agent in a NASCAR generation.

¡§The company is carrying a lot of momentum,¡¨ Johnson said. ¡§But we know it¡¦s a new year. We know during the offseason teams were working hard to get their cars right. ... I would be foolish to pound on my chest and say we¡¦re going to continue where we left off because I really think the competition is closing up. ... I think we¡¦ve put the pressure on the field to step it up another level.¡¨

Gordon had more points than any driver had scored in the 10-race Chase in its first three years, and averaged a 5.1 finish in those races as he battled for a fifth career championship.

It didn¡¦t happen, though, thanks to a four-race win streak by Johnson to start the second half of the Chase. That has Gordon thinking he and crew chief Steve Letarte might have to be a little more aggressive this year.

"I told Steve, ¡¥Don¡¦t be afraid to push me a little bit harder when it comes to some of those things,¡¦ ¡¨ Gordon said.

¡§Sometimes he¡¦s got to sell me and other times I¡¦ve got to sell him. I think that might be the only thing this year, that we just push the limits to get more speed out of the car.

¡§I will take the consistency that we had last year, and I would take it again this year. But knowing that we got beat having that kind of consistency, it¡¦s going to push us to try to get more speed, which is our job every year ¡V try to go faster.¡¨

Much will be said and written about Earnhardt Jr. before the season begins, and there¡¦s no question he¡¦ll be under pressure to perform in the No. 88 cars. He and Tony Eury Jr., the crew chief that came over from DEI with the driver, will have the full Hendrick arsenal at their disposal.

They¡¦ll share a shop with Mears, who got his first victory last year the Coca-Cola 600 and could be this year¡¦s breakout star if he and crew chief Alan Gustafson mesh completely.

Harvick won the Daytona 500 and Burton won at Texas early last season, and while both made the Chase, neither really threatened to win a title. Bowyer hung in longer than anyone might have predicted, winding up third behind Johnson and Gordon in the final standings. Still, if RCR is to supplant Hendrick atop the Chevrolet pedestal, there¡¦s work to be done.

¡§We were running as well as any team on the circuit for five, six, seven races, and then we lost it a little bit,¡¨ Burton said. ¡§Our stuff didn¡¦t drive as well as it had earlier in the year, and I think other people got better. ... We weren¡¦t able to make a step to get our cars better later in the year. We just weren¡¦t able to continue to make improvements.¡¨

That¡¦s the continuing challenge at DEI, too. It certainly could be argued that the loss of Earnhardt Jr. forced that team to sharpen its focus, and if that¡¦s what happened, then the emergence of Truex and the No. 1 team can be seen as evidence it took place. Truex scored 306 more points in the second half of the regular season than he did in the first half, but then stumbled in the Chase.

Truex and Paul Menard were joined in the DEI fold just past midseason by Mark Martin, who¡¦s back again to run a partial schedule. It falls on Martin, one of the sport¡¦s most respected veterans, to take over the No. 8 cars for the 24 races he¡¦ll run. Aric Almirola will drive it in the others. Regan Smith will take over with the No. 01 team.RCR and DEI also will have their merged engine program up and running full-time this year. Hendrick will once again supply engines and other support for Haas CNC Racing, which has Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield in its two cars. And Furniture Row Racing again plans a full season as a single-car team with Joe Nemechek, one of the casualties in the Ginn demise a year ago, driving its cars.

Chevrolet teams look to carry momentum from their dominant performance in 2007.

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