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Cup preview: Hendrick Motorsports

One in a series of 15 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team previews ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500:

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS

Principal owner: Rick Hendrick

Manufacturer: Chevrolet

Engine source: Hendrick Motorsports

Alliances: Stewart-Haas Racing

Drivers (crew chief): Kasey Kahne (Kenny Francis), Jeff Gordon (Alan Gustafson), Jimmie Johnson (Chad Knaus), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Steve Letarte)

2013's top finisher: Johnson, Sprint Cup champion

2013 grade: A

2014 preseason grade: A-minus

2014 outlook: NASCAR's most successful team of the past 20 years shows no sign of slowing down. The all-star driver lineup returns intact, as does the roster of crew chiefs. But change is coming: Steve Letarte, the crew chief credited with helping Dale Earnhardt Jr. become more competitive in recent years, already announced he'll join NBC's NASCAR coverage in 2015, which could affect Earnhardt and the No. 88 team's focus. Hendrick is welcoming back a familiar face in Ray Evernham, who will work in an undefined management/consultant role but insists he has no interest in returning to the pit wall as a crew chief -- whether with Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon, with whom Evernham won 49 races and three Cup series titles from 1994-99. Gordon hinted that if he manages to win a fifth Cup championship this year, he might retire while on top. But that would entail beating the remarkable teaming of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, who have mastered every Chase format that NASCAR has thrown at them to emerge as Sprint Cup champions six of the past eight years. There's no reason to believe that Johnson will be any less prepared for or competitive in a 16-driver, elimination-style Chase than he has been in previous formats, which means it's up to the competition to rise to the standard he sets.

Quotable: "We've been doing this for a long time, and when I look back on some of the records we've set, the challenge for me is to keep it going -- to try to stay competitive, and do it every year. It was a thrill to see Jimmie get six championships, but it's going to be tougher. I'd love to see Jimmie get seven; I'd love to see Jeff get five. I'd love to see Earnhardt get one, and I'd love to see Kasey get one. I feel real good where Dale is; we're going to run as well as we can with Steve Letarte until the end of the year and then we'll make that decision. I feel good that Kasey is another year into the system and Jeff is working well with Alan. I wouldn't trade any of the guys. We just have to come back and keep doing what we've been doing and get better. We're focused on trying to keep everything in check, keep sharing information and trying to be on the cutting edge of whatever rule changes they hand us. We have to go out and test and try to compete. There's a lot going down at one time, but the people that accept it and don't get caught up in [complaining] about it are the ones that will come out ahead in the long run." -- Rick Hendrick

DRIVER LINEUP

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/Diet Dew/AMP Energy Drink Chevrolet): "We had a good season and a real good Chase. It was the bonus points that hurt us the most. If we had some bonus points, and some sort of top-15 at Chicago, it might have been a totally different year for us. I'm excited about getting back out there. We had new rules at the beginning of last season, too, and we seemed to adjust to those pretty well. I'm just looking forward to seeing how we can do and how our performance is going to be right off the bat. It's going to be a fun year and I think we're going to enjoy ourselves. We seem to get better every year and hopefully that trajectory will still be the same going into this season. We're going to improve on what we did last year and that will be fun. It would be awesome to put a win behind you early and not have to worry about the stress of making the Chase and doing the math on the new format. Winning a race early would give you the opportunity to go for another win and go for multiple wins and try to build up those bonus points that I think are ever so important to win any championship."

Goal for 2014: Just win, baby.

Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive to End Hunger/Exalta Chevrolet): "I still think the best team is going to win this championship, just like they have back before they made the points change to the Chase and since they made the points change to the Chase. The best teams know how to put themselves in position to have things go their way. I hope we're the best team so the format change will work for us. We look at our missed opportunities and try to get better. One thing I'm really focused on this year is trying to improve my restarts. I feel like I'm really good at giving information to the team about what to do to make the car better, through practice, testing or the race. I feel like Alan is fantastic at setting up a race car. I feel like we have a great pit crew. There's just small things we need to work on. We had a great Chase, up to Texas, so we're looking at what we can do to get better results. I want to win at Kentucky, because that's the only track I've never won at, and I want to get a Sprint Cup championship. In my trophy room, I see four championship trophies. But they say Winston Cup on them. You can name me a four-time Sprint Cup champion for technical reasons all you want, but to me I'm still not. I want that before my career is over. If that happened, that would be all the reason I need to say, 'This is it, I'm done.' Go out on a high note, start playing baseball."

Goal for 2014: Win that elusive fifth Cup championship and retire on top.

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet): "We got the five championships in a row. I felt like we could maybe get up there to Richard [Petty] or to Dale [Earnhardt], but man, it's so tough to do. I'm not taking it lightly or for granted. I wanted to see six come and then worry about seven. Now we're here and hopefully we'll have another opportunity at it. I feel regardless of car or points system, we'll be a threat. It would be nice to win one, two, whatever, with the new format. I still think the way you win a championship is the same: you've got to win races. Consistency is great for a work environment. The world we created at Team 48 is perfect for that. It helps us hold things down because we've got a strong nucleus of people. There's a lot of change this year, when you look at qualifying procedure, the way the champion is crowned, rules package, officiating -- they're even parking the transporters different. It's going to be nice to have a familiar foundation to work from."

Goal for 2014: Win Cup No. 7 and prepare for No. 8.

Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Farmer's Insurance/Great Clips Chevrolet): "I try to take things off of each year to motivate me. Last year in the first half of the year, I'd say we were as fast as anybody, if not the fastest, in a lot of those races. We didn't put the whole season together. Kenny Francis and I are working on small things to get better. I know the speed is going to be there in the cars. They work really hard there at HMS, we've done some testing and have more plans. I feel like this could be a great season. The new Chase format would have helped us a little last year. Over the years there have been some times when I've been a little inconsistent or had bad luck for a period of time and things like that. So this way, this system helps me a little bit get into the Chase. Once you're in the Chase, you need to perform. That's just all there is too it."

Goal for 2014: Contend with teammate Johnson for a Sprint Cup title.