OPINION: Don’t crown Hendrick just yet

To win a NASCAR Cup Series race these days, you must go through Hendrick Motorsports. Four straight wins, four straight 1-2 finishes. Seven wins in 16 races to lead all teams.

Intermediate race wins? Check. Short tracks? Done. Road courses? They’ve taken the last two of those.

Hendrick drivers have made dominating races look easy, and the reigning series champions have a leg up on the competition. Those not associated with them are once again fed up with their success as if it’s the early 2000s when Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson weren’t leaving much on the table for the competition.

All the hard work from the lean years is now bearing fruit in a big way. Hendrick has four cars capable of winning anywhere, and it’s an in-house battle of who comes out on top on any given weekend.

It’s good to be Hendrick Motorsports, even if there is still a need to be cautious. The NASCAR season is a long one; it’s one of the longest in professional sports, and those on top in June could easily be scratching their heads after the finale in November.

For now, yes, winning a Cup Series race goes through Hendrick Motorsports but winning the Cup Series championship is not a done deal.

It says a lot about the priorities and focus of Jeff Andrews, executive vice president and general manager at Hendrick Motorsports, and everyone at Hendrick that one of his first comments in the winner’s press conference at Sonoma Raceway was about the playoffs. He could have, and probably should have, been gloating, hardly able to keep from grinning and basking in the California sunshine, given the trajectory the company is on.

“We’re enjoying the ride, but we surely know there’s a lot of work left to do,” said Andrews. “We need this kind of momentum and speed coming up in October and November.”

The competition has been chasing Hendrick Motorsports a lot lately. Between them, Kyle Larson (No. 5 Chevrolet) and Chase Elliott (No. 9 Chevrolet) have won the last three races. Baker/Motorsport Images

There are lessons to be learned from declaring favorites or writing off a team too early. We’ve seen it before. Kevin Harvick last season, right? When Harvick and Stewart-Haas Racing ripped through the regular season, some prematurely etched their names on the trophy, only for Harvick to fail to make the Championship 4.

Throughout the 2018 regular and postseason, the narrative was all about the Big 3 of Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. When it came time to decide the title, Joey Logano retitled it “the Big 3 and me.” Then the overlooked Logano left the competition behind to claim the title. When he later posted a picture of himself, his wife Brittany, and the Cup Series championship trophy on Twitter with the caption, “The Big 3,” it was a mic drop moment and a reminder to all about how wrong they were.

Hendrick and Elliott were not among the favorites going into the playoffs last year. But Elliott and the No. 9 team got hot when it mattered – as is necessary for a playoff format – by winning three of the season’s final five races.

Like it or not, winning the Cup Series championship comes down to what you do in three race increments during the final 10 weeks of the season. Hendrick Motorsports might be standing above all right now, however, it would be foolish to crown them.

“When the playoffs start, a lot of weird things can happen, and you have to take what you can get,” said Truex after Sonoma. “Luckily for us, we have some good tracks in the playoffs, which is always good. They’re (Hendrick) strong, and we definitely need to keep working on it.”

Ironically, this season has already seen the headlines changed more than once around who the favorites are. It wasn’t that long ago Joe Gibbs Racing was given the nod when Truex won three races in eight weeks. Denny Hamlin was hot, hot, hot at the start of the year with eight top-five finishes in nine races, but suddenly his seemingly insurmountable point lead is dwindling. Hamlin has one top-five finish in the last seven races.

All of this is to say it’s far too early to give up on this season despite what the Hendrick drivers are doing. Sustained excellence is hard, be it through the years or a single season.

“It’s not going to be one easy thing where you say, ‘Oh, there it is,’ but over time, we’ll close the gap,” Logano said. “It happens all the time. Remember, a couple of years ago, we were saying Hendrick couldn’t win a race and now look at them, so it goes in cycles, and we’ve just got to keep working hard to get back on top.”