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Cup preview: Hendrick Motorsports hoping to get back on top

The 10th installment in a series of 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team previews ahead of the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 21:

NO. 2: HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS

Principal owner: Rick Hendrick

Manufacturer: Chevrolet

Engine source: Hendrick Motorsports

Alliances: Stewart-Haas Racing, HScott Motorsports

Drivers (crew chiefs): Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Greg Ives), Chase Elliott (Alan Gustafson), Kasey Kahne (Keith Rodden), Jimmie Johnson (Chad Knaus)

2015's top finisher: Jeff Gordon (third)

2015 Grade: B-plus

Ownership stability: A

Sponsorship stability: B-plus

Driver/crew chief quality: A-minus

2016 team grade: B-plus

Outlook: Hendrick Motorsports won nine races last year but only had one driver -- the now-retired Jeff Gordon -- make it to the final eight in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The team went on an un-Hendrick-like stretch with one victory over 19 races before winning three of the last four races (with three different drivers). "We had a lull in the summer, we got our performance back late in the year, the Gibbs guys got stronger throughout the year -- you've just got to peak at the right time," Earnhardt said. Chase Elliott shouldn't think he has to come in and put up Jeff Gordon numbers right away. Kyle Busch had two wins but finished 20th in the standings in his rookie year at Hendrick. The one thing that must improve: the No. 5 car. Kasey Kahne had to be happy to close the book on 2015 and move on to 2016. One newcomer besides Elliott who could have a big impact: Championship-winning crew chief Darian Grubb has joined HMS and will oversee the car-building process for Hendrick. With two shops -- the No. 5 and No. 24 in one, the No. 48 and No. 88 in the other -- Grubb will help them work more closely together and will also keep a close look on what the rest of the garage is doing to gain speed.

DRIVER LINEUP

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet): Johnson won five times last year but got knocked out in the first round of the Chase after a $50 axle seal broke on his car at Dover, his best track. Falling out of the Chase so early was shocking for Johnson, who figured 11th- and sixth-place finishes to open the Chase would be good enough to advance. It wasn't after the 41st-place finish at Dover. Johnson might just want to take some dice and roll them; it seems the Chase can come down to luck. Then again, do they make their own luck? "The fact of the matter is everything can be avoided," Knaus said. "We learned a little bit from [Dover] and that's what racing is -- you go and you push things to the limitations, and when they fail, you address them." There's no doubt that Johnson and crew chief Knaus form one of the most formidable teams in the garage. The biggest question is if they will prove it over the final 10 weeks of the elimination-style Chase the same way they had in earning their six titles in the previous formats. "I don't have a good feel for this championship battle, period," Johnson said. "We haven't made it to the final four. I had such a feeling, almost like a road map with the previous Chase -- what to think, where to be." Don't think this team is complacent. Johnson said Hendrick appears more determined than ever to win another championship.

2016 goal: Win three races and make it to the final four.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Nationwide/Mt. Dew/Axalta/TaxSlayer Chevrolet: Earnhardt has enjoyed a solid stretch the past five years at Hendrick, and while he did finish 12th in the standings, his 16 top-5s (third among all drivers) and 22 top-10s (tied for fourth among all drivers) shows that he consistently ran among the leaders. Granted, two of his wins came on the restrictor-plate tracks and his third win was a rain-shortened affair at Phoenix, but if a driver puts himself in the right place at the right time, good things happen. The best part about 2015 was that there didn't seem to be much of a fall-off from crew chief Steve Letarte to Greg Ives. The second year with Ives should make the team stronger, although top engineer Kevin Meendering has moved to JR Motorsports as a crew chief -- Meendering did Earnhardt a favor by sticking with the Cup team one more year to help Ives with the transition. Replacing Meendering and heading up the engineering side of the team will be Travis Peterson, who came with Ives from JR Motorsports, and former MWR engineer Tom O'Brien. Earnhardt also had some pit-crew troubles last year after losing the bulk of his crew to Joe Gibbs Racing newcomer Carl Edwards. He needs a solid pit crew, just like any other driver, but maybe even more so because Earnhardt is prone to the occasional pit-road mistake himself. "Greg is going to have more confidence," Earnhardt said. "Last year, he knew what he was doing ... but he still was nervous because he is the guy and he's got all this responsibility. His confidence got so much better as the season went on." The 41-year-old Earnhardt continues to have fun and is looking forward to a long relationship with Ives. "He's going to have a hell of a team," Earnhardt said. "I'm glad to be a part of it as long as I can."

2016 goal: Win three races and make it to the final four.

Kasey Kahne (No. 5 Great Clips/Farmers Insurance/LiftMaster/Quicken Loans/Panasonic/Mt. Dew Chevrolet): Except for Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne might have had the most disappointing season of anyone in 2015. He has signed a deal to stay at Hendrick through 2018, but after a year in which he finished 18th in the standings and had just three top-5s, he needs to perform or he might find Hendrick coming to his door wondering whether they have any potential to improve. Kahne has the talent and the affable Rodden is a strong engineer. But they need to start clicking. And we're not talking about clicking by Charlotte in May. We're talking by Atlanta in February. Kahne says he plainly needs more speed. "It's something we've needed for a couple of years," Kahne said. "We're trying to work hard and understand where that is. We know the cars are there, we know the engines are there and there have been times when I had as much speed as anybody last year. It's just not consistent enough."

2016 goal: Win two races and make it to the final eight in the Chase.

Chase Elliott (No. 24 NAPA Auto Parts/Kelley Blue Book/Mt. Dew/3M Chevrolet): Elliott's biggest challenge in 2016 will be patience. Yes, he won an Xfinity Series title in 2014 and had three finishes from 16th to 18th among his five Sprint Cup starts last year. But he has a steep learning curve ahead of him. He has the same crew chief Busch had in his first year at Hendrick, and Gustafson's experience in dealing with another young hotshoe should help him. "You learn from your failures and your successes," Gustafson said. "I don't think the age is the deciding factors, but I am sure there are situations I went through with Mark [Martin] and Jeff [Gordon] I can apply to Chase." They will want to win and make the Chase, but for the driver named Chase, a solid year of learning, showing improvement over the second half of the season when returning to the same tracks and completing all the laps possible should be the primary goals. That's not something Elliott wants to hear. He wants to win, and win now. But winning a race and running 25th every other week isn't going to help him in the long run. "I'm excited to go and give it a shot and give my best effort," Elliott said. "Wherever we start, I'll just try to improve and make the most of this opportunity."

2016 goal: Win a race, earn top-rookie honors and finish in the top-20 in points.