Earnhardt's arrival gives Hendrick Motorsports star-studded lineup

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Rick Hendrick and fellow Sprint Cup owner Felix Sabates have been friends for a long time. They fish together. They dine together. They do everything together but share car dealerships.

So when Sabates suggested the only way to beat Hendrick Motorsports was to have NASCAR impose a rule mandating those cars run with three wheels, Hendrick could only laugh.

"He is a good friend," he said with a touch of sarcasm.

Sabates could have said the same about Chevrolets in general. The General Motors product won 26 of 36 races in 2007, as well as the Budweiser Shootout and All-Star race.

HMS won 18 of those races, led by two-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson with 10 and Jeff Gordon with six. Casey Mears and Kyle Busch also won, giving all four of Hendrick's drivers a victory.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr., who replaces Busch this season, kicked off 2008 with a victory in the Budweiser Shootout.

"I think they've got to beat us to get to No. 1," Hendrick said.

He wasn't being cocky. He just understands the facts, because he was on the other side of the coin when Dale Earnhardt was winning titles left and right at Richard Childress Racing.

"[In '86], we had 16 poles," he said. "We won nine races. But we were like drag racers. We went out there and wanted to lead every lap, put all the power we can on the motor and blow up or something.

"After you sit there every year and watch the 3 car win it, you go back and say to be a champions, you have to do these things."

Hendrick did his homework well. Since 1995, he has won seven titles, including the past two with Johnson. His organization has been so strong NASCAR chairman Brian France compared it to the New England Patriots.

But as Hendrick reminded, the Patriots recently lost their bid for a perfect season and fourth Super Bowl title to the New York Giants.

"I kind of compare ourselves to the Patriots a little bit," he said. "We had such an early lead [last season], but then everybody starts watching you. And if people watch enough game film, they'll figure out how to play you. If they figure out how to play you, they'll get closer and finally beat you."

Nobody has been able to beat Chevrolet lately -- at least on a consistent basis. It has won the past five manufacturer's championships, six of the past seven and 11 of the past 15.

Chevrolet's biggest loss last season came when Joe Gibbs Racing announced plans to leave for Toyota. But that seemed to make the other Chevy teams, particularly Hendrick, only work harder to make sure they stay on top.

"We know we're in the crosshairs, but we've got ourselves in the crosshairs," Hendrick said. "What we've got to do is look at where we can do better, and the rest take care of itself."

Hendrick Motorsports
The pressure is on Hendrick like never before. Not to get Johnson a third straight title -- something that only Cale Yarborough (1976-78) has done in the history of NASCAR -- although that is a goal.

Not to get Gordon a fifth title, moving him within two of Earnhardt and Richard Petty on the all-time list.

No, this pressure is much greater.

It's to get Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver, in Victory Lane. Earnhardt, who hasn't won in more than a year, left the company his father built for HMS because he felt it was the best place to win a championship.

Sabates, again being a good friend, said this might be the biggest challenge Hendrick has faced because the expectations are so high.

Hendrick admitted the pressure is there, but he is just as confident in Earnhardt's ability to compete for a title as he is that Johnson and Gordon will be in the hunt.

"I'm not worried about that," he said. "I'm just trying to keep us focused and doing the things we do, and let the wins take care of themselves. These guys want it, and they want it because people say we can't do it any better.

"When somebody puts a target on you, that makes you step up even more. That's motivated us to do the best we can."

Outlook: Johnson has won more races (33) than any driver since he came into the Cup in 2002. His 86 top-5s rank second only to Gordon, who has 87, during that span. There's no reason to think all that will end and he won't compete for a third straight title. Gordon is coming off one of his best seasons statistically, having recorded a record 30 top-10s last season. He should again be Johnson's biggest challenge for the title. Many predict Earnhardt will win six races in his first season with HMS. That's setting the bar high, but it's not out of the question. Mears is a dark horse to make the Chase. He won a race last season and inherits the crew that helped Kyle Busch make the playoffs a year ago.

Richard Childress Racing
Were it not for Hendrick, this organization would have gotten a lot more attention last season. It placed all three drivers -- Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton -- in the Chase. Bowyer was within 14 points of the lead three races into the playoff and finished a strong third.

Harvick won the Daytona 500 and the All-Star race.

All three are confident they can make a run at HMS in 2008, particularly with the new engine program run in conjunction with Dale Earnhardt Inc.

"Right now, they're definitely the team that we're all trying to catch up to and make things better," Harvick said of HMS. "They definitely kind of set the bar. I feel like at RCR we've made strides to close that gap. I feel pretty confident that we've done that. You just have to see where you fall when the green flag drops."

Outlook: With Joe Gibbs Racing out of the picture, RCR moves up to be the second strongest Chevrolet team. There's no reason to think Harvick, Burton and Bowyer won't make the Chase again, although they seem to lack that overall consistency it's going to take to win the title.

Dale Earnhardt Inc.
The hope of this organization remains in the hands of a driver with Jr. at the end of his name. Only now, it's Martin Truex Jr., not Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Truex takes the mantle as the leader at DEI, which no longer has NASCAR's most popular driver. He is coming off a strong 2007 performance in which he made the Chase, won a race and had a career-best 14 top-10s.

He knows the pressure to perform is even greater this season, with all eyes on him to fill Earnhardt's void, but he feels up to it.

"This is definitely the most comfortable I have been in my own shoes since I started racing in the Nationwide Series," the two-time Nationwide champion said. "I don't know why, just it is. I feel great that my team is still together. They give me a lot of confidence going to the race track each week with the cars they build and the job they are able to do, the way we are able to work together.

"I am real confident, real comfortable. I put pressure on myself, but I don't feel a whole lot from the outside. I feel like this is the year I can go in and do what I feel is right, do the best job I can, and in the end, I think everything is going to work out for us."

Truex also feels he does not have to shoulder all of the load, with veteran Mark Martin splitting duties in the No. 8 once occupied by Earnhardt with rising star Aric Almirola.

"It looks like everything is going real well at DEI," he said. "It has been a lot of fun working with Mark Martin. He's a great guy, lot of talent. So far that transition has been working with him, and his being my new teammates has gone really well.

"With Tony Gibson there on the No. 8 crew for that effort, it feels like we never quit racing last year. It is like we never missed a beat. Things feel good."

Outlook: Truex definitely is the future of this organization. He should be a contender for the Chase again, but if the equipment were good enough to challenge for a title, Earnhardt might still be around. Everybody knows Martin has the talent to win in the No. 8. There will be a significant drop-off when Almirola gets behind the wheel. Paul Menard has the benefit of being in the top 35 to start the season. Staying there might be tough. Regan Smith finished no better than 24th in seven races last season. There is no reason to think he will take a huge step forward.

Haas Racing
This looks like the reincarnation of Gillett Evernham Motorsports, where Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs were teammates two years ago.

They will have the benefits of HMS engines and technology, so they should be one of the stronger two-car operations in the garage this season.

Outlook: Mayfield made the Chase in 2004-05 at GEM and finished a career-best seventh in points in 1998. His best years likely are behind him, but with the right equipment, he could be a solid top-25 driver. Riggs never has finished better than 20th in points and could be in the same position he was a year ago, fighting to stay in the top 35.

Furniture Row Racing
This is the only team based in Denver, so that's strange in and of itself. Fortunately, the organization gets all of its engines from HMS, so that gives drivers Joe Nemechek and Kenny Wallace a chance each weekend.

Outlook: Nemechek has won as many poles (9) as any driver who has won only four races. Given good equipment, he can be consistent enough to contend for a top-20 spot. Wallace has proved he is much better as a television analyst than a driver.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.