CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Rick Hendrick began his 25th season in NASCAR full of expectations for his storied organization.
He predicted newcomer Mark Martin would make all four of his drivers championship contenders, that Dale Earnhardt Jr. would find a comfort level at Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie Johnson would continue his run through the NASCAR record books.
But for Jeff Gordon, his 17-year money man, the boss had a promise: Gordon would win again.
“Multiple races,” Hendrick insisted. “No doubt about it.”
So far, Gordon is 0-for-2. But the first two races suggest he’ll be back in Victory Lane soon, perhaps Sunday in the Shelby 427 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Gordon led 64 laps Sunday before finishing second at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. The four-time series champion was unable to chase down winner Matt Kenseth over the closing laps, but he found some consolation: His No. 24 team is far ahead of where it was at this time last year, when Gordon had his first winless season since his 1993 rookie year.
“I’m so excited about this race team right now,” he said. “I just think we’re head and shoulders above where we were. I love the way the car was driving.”
Gordon couldn’t say that often last year, when he was slow to adjust to NASCAR’s full-time use of its new model car. Although he was third at Fontana in 2008 and had three top-10 finishes through six races, it wasn’t a true indication of the team’s preparation or performance.
That became evident in April, when a crash caused Gordon to finish last at Texas, and he followed with nondescript runs at Phoenix and Talladega. As the season wore on, the results that once had come so easily never materialized.
Soon it was October and he was at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, a year removed from the last of his 81 victories. His fans were adamant that crew chief Steve Letarte was the problem. Gordon refused to cast blame, especially against someone who had guided him to a NASCAR-record 30 top-10 finishes in 36 starts the year before. But as the season dwindled, nothing seemed to change.
Hendrick believes Gordon’s struggles were a companywide failure to provide the driver with the right tools.
“We were just not good enough for that team. I think Jeff is so used to carrying it on his shoulders, I think we all just gave up at one point there, but it motivated us to come back,” Hendrick said. “That was the first year I feel like we just let him down.”
Some drivers coming off such a year might question how much longer they can race. Gordon used it to refire his passion and rebuild his commitment to winning.
And Letarte wanted an overhaul, handing Hendrick a list of changes he needed following the season finale at Homestead. He altered the engineering group, tinkered with personnel and the cars themselves.
The result was a win this month in a Daytona 500 qualifying race, Gordon’s first trip to Victory Lane in almost 16 months. But it didn’t count — at least not for points — and he is focused on snapping his 43-race winless streak.
He led 14 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500 but was 13th when rain halted the race and Kenseth was declared the winner. Had it gone the distance, Gordon is certain he’d have contended for the win.