DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – When Tony Stewart checked his rearview mirror in the final laps of the Budweiser Shootout last weekend, he knew he was in trouble.

The Hendrick Motorsports cars were lined up and ready to take charge.

And they did.

Unfortunately for Stewart and all the other Sprint Cup teams, it may have been a sign of things to come for the NASCAR season.

“They’ve definitely picked up where they left off for sure,” said Stewart, the top driver at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Now it’s up to everyone else to catch up – a daunting task considering Hendrick’s four-car team has become arguably the most dominant in NASCAR history.

Hendrick boasts two-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson and four-time series champ Jeff Gordon. Throw in Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and team owner Rick Hendrick’s talent pool is starting to draw comparisons to some of the most recognized dynasties in professional sports history.

Few would mention Hendrick in the same breath as the 1960’s Boston Celtics, the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers or – gasp! – the New York Yankees. But after winning 18 of 36 races last year and then sweeping the first two events of Speedweeks, those comparisons might not be far off.

“They’re on their way to being the New England Patriots on wheels,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said during his preseason “state of the sport” address. “Can they do it again? Can they keep their dominance?”

Not surprisingly, no one in the garage is ready to concede the title – not even after Earnhardt won the Shootout and then Johnson claimed the pole for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.

Still, they realize the challenge in front of them.

“You go home in the winter and you try to get better, but they get better, too,” veteran driver Kyle Petty said. “They don’t just go home and sit on their butt. You get 5 percent better, but they get 10 percent better every year.

“It’s tough to catch up to an organization like that. They are a great organization with great leadership and great people working there.”

Hendrick’s success is nothing new.

The team won four consecutive championships beginning in 1995, added three more Cup titles since and has 167 career wins.

But last season, Hendrick took it to a whole new level. The team won nine of 16 races involving the Car of Tomorrow, including the first five.

“Those guys are so good,” Roush-Fenway Racing driver Matt Kenseth said. “Right now, they’re the guys you’re looking at that are on the top that you’re trying to knock off.”

Competing teams argue that Hendrick got a head start on CoT testing and the results reflected it.

Now they’re eager to show they’ve caught up.

“It’s clear that Hendrick has been the team to beat,” Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton said. “But we’re not coming this year to take a whippin’. I’m not here to say we’re going to beat them, but we’re not here to run second.”

Burton and his colleagues will get another chance to see whether they’ve closed the gap on Hendrick on Thursday in the twin, 150-mile qualifying races.

But winning one race – even if it’s the Daytona 500 – might not be a good indicator since the NASCAR season places such a premium on consistency.

“Let’s say we gave ourselves four, five, six races (last season) where we genuinely had a chance to win a race,” Chip Ganassi Racing driver Juan Pablo Montoya said. “But the guys at Hendrick, they give themselves 20-25 chances a year to win. When you have that many chances, you are going to win a lot of races, and that’s what we need to work on.”

Hendrick seems to have it down pat – and everyone in the garage has noticed. Rick Hendrick even says he knows there’s resentment from fellow teams, which makes the challenge of three-peating more difficult.

“Any time everybody’s really shooting at you, it makes it tougher,” Hendrick said. “We’ve got to keep working hard because there’s a lot of folks that are gunning for us, and that’s a good thing.”

The Hendrick drivers, meanwhile, are up for the challenge. They even seem to enjoy the role of heavy favorite.

“I think that’s a great position to be in and I think there is a reason why guys want to be on the Yankees and why these guys that we have want to be with Hendrick Motorsports,” Gordon said. “It’s no different than the Yankees.

“There is no guarantee that they are going to win the World Series every year. They’ve won it a lot, but it’s the same with us. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but at least on the inside, we know that we’ve got the tools to get it done. If we don’t get it done, it’s our fault.”

AP-ES-02-13-08 0400EST


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