Will Hendrick build on Texas success at Bristol?

Jimmie Johnson’s triumph at Texas Motor Speedway signaled a sea change for Hendrick Motorsports after a slow start to 2017.

Will Hendrick build on Texas success at Bristol?
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, does a burnout after winning
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet celebrates in Victory Lane
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Chase Elliott, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Johnson’s 81st career win — and record seventh at Texas — was the first victory for HMS this season. It also marks the first time this year that three of the Hendrick cars finished in the top 10 and just the second time in the first seven races that two HMS teammates posted top-five results.

With the first quarter of the regular season in the books, only Chase Elliott and Johnson are comfortably in the Playoff zone. The four Hendrick drivers have combined to post one pole, six top fives, 10 top 10s and have led 230 laps.

Here’s how the Hendrick drivers stack up heading into this weekend’s Food City 500:

Kasey Kahne — A mechanical failure at Texas took Kahne out of contention in what could have been a top-10 run. This season, Kahne’s average finish is 16.4. He’s finished on the lead lap in six of seven races and led seven laps — which is seven more laps than he led all of last season. Still, Kahne has picked up where he left off in 2016--he’s 17th in the standings. His career-average qualifying effort of 13.7 is five positions better than this year’s results in time trials.

Bristol has been a decent track for Kahne. He has one pole (2007) and one win (2013) at the .533-mile concrete bullring. Kahne’s victory at Bristol — one of the 11 tracks where Kahne has picked up one of his 17-career wins — was also Hendrick’s 10th and last win in Thunder Valley.

“I’ve always liked Bristol,” Kahne said. “The atmosphere is neat, and it’s a pretty cool show for the fans. We’ve been working really hard as a team and it would be an awesome place to visit Victory Lane again.”

Chase Elliott — When it comes to consistency, Elliott is leading the way at Hendrick, just as he did in the first half of 2016. Elliott, who is second in the standings, has three top fives and five top 10s. He’s the only Hendrick driver to post stage wins (2) and to complete every lap this season. His 169 laps led is also the organization’s best. Elliott boasts the only pole (Daytona 500) for HMS in 2017. He’s earned a solid average finish of eighth.

Elliott finished fourth in his Bristol Cup debut last April. He’s completed every lap raced on the half-mile track, led 14 circuits and enjoys the tour’s best average finish at BMS, albeit in limited action there — 9.5.

”Bristol is a tough place,” Elliott said. “Very challenging, you get in traffic a lot and you get in tough situations. I think Bristol can be mentally draining. It’s important to have your car driving well so you can do something different than the guy ahead of you.”

Jimmie Johnson — En route to last year’s title run, Johnson scored two of his five 2016 wins in the first five races. His average finish was 6.42. No doubt it was curious when the No. 48 team went seven races before breaking into Victory Lane this year. But with an average qualifying effort of 21.4 — Johnson’s worst in 18 Cup seasons — it shouldn’t be a surprise at all. Johnson’s career average qualifying effort is 12.1. He’s led just 46 laps and has been running on the lead lap in five of seven races.

It’s hard to believe that Johnson has just one victory at Bristol (2010). Still, he’s been running at the finish in 29 of his 30 career races at the half-mile track. Johnson has finished in the top five in one-third of his Thunder Valley runs, including three of his last five starts.

“I had a great, relaxing weekend with my family after the Texas win,” Johnson said. “I know we had a slow start to the year, so winning Texas will give us some momentum and it was certainly good for morale. Bristol has been a better track for us with the exception of this race one year ago when we were caught speeding on pit road in the first 52 laps. It was so costly, we never recovered. Besides that, over the past two years we have been consistently in the top five. It’s a tough race mentally and physically but is always entertaining for the fans.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. — After missing the second half of 2016, getting back on the horse hasn’t been easy for Earnhardt. Although he scored his first top-five finish of the season at Texas, the result comes after crashes at Daytona and Martinsville. Earnhardt has led eight laps and finished on the lead lap in four of seven races. Therefore, it’s not surprising he is bringing up the rear at HMS when it comes to average finish — 21.7 — and he's in 20th-place in the Cup standings.

Earnhardt won the night race at Bristol in 2004. He finished second to Carl Edwards in last year’s Food City 500. The only track where he enjoys a better average finish than Bristol (12.5) is Atlanta (12.2). When it comes to career laps led, Bristol (790) ranks third for Earnhardt. He's completed 97.1 percent laps raced and leads the Cup tour with 25 lead-lap finishes.

“We’re going to keep looking at ways to improve our car and get better, but I always look forward to racing at Bristol – there’s just no other track like it,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully we can carry our momentum from Texas into this weekend.”

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