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2006 Season Preview

As it prepares for the 2006 season, Hendrick Motorsports finds itself in an enviable position; that is, it seems possible that each of the organization’s four full-time teams might challenge for a spot in the NASCAR Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved in any successful season – Think of 1996, when Jeff Gordon won 10 races and finished second to teammate Terry Labonte by 37 points – but as of now, it appears that Hendrick Motorsports should be feeling pretty good about the 2006 season.

Here’s a brief look at each of Hendrick Motorsports’ four primary NASCAR Nextel Cup teams and its one full-time Busch Series entry:

Kyle Busch, No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet

Kyle Busch’s rookie season will be hard to top–but he’s certainly eager to try. Still, as a runaway winner of the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award and a two-time winner (his first made him the youngest winner in NASCAR Nextel Cup history), Busch has set the bar pretty high for himself. “All of the success we had at the end last year has definitely rolled over into this season,” he said during testing. We didn’t have any turnover [on the team], so it great to have everybody back with us. [We’re all] looking forward to a great year, hopefully.” In other words, he, like a lot of observers, has reason to think he might challenge for a spot in the season-ending Chase for the Championship.

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet

Despite everything he’s accomplished in the sport, Gordon still has some unfinished business. First, there’s his standing on the list of all-time winners–at 73-and-counting, Jeff is just three behind Dale Earnhardt Sr. for sixth all-time. And then, there’s the matter of a fifth NASCAR Nextel Cup championship ... Though the No. 24 team changed crew chiefs late in 2005, the team didn’t miss a beat, and 26-year-old Steve Letarte guided Gordon and his Chevrolet Monte Carlo to their fourth win of the season. Nevertheless, an 11th-place finish in last year’s Chase wasn’t quite what the team expected, which might actually work in Gordon’s favor in 2006: “I think that my motivation really just comes from lack of success, knowing that I’ve had success and I think [our] team motivates itself the same way. They just know what we should be capable of and what we should be accomplishing.”

Brian Vickers, No. 25 GMAC Chevrolet

This just might be the 22-year-old’s breakout season. Like his teammate Busch, Vickers has the benefit of another year under his belt and a team that underwent no major changes in the off-season. Vickers had some moments when he was finally able to show his talent last year–second place at Pocono, a third at the Brickyard and another 12 finishes of 12th or better–and he has the confidence that this season can only be better. “We have all of the tools to be one of the teams that make the Chase,” says Vickers. “I feel like I’m more prepared and I think Lance (McGrew, crew chief on the No. 25) and the team are better prepared. We’re smarter and learned a lot together from last year. I really expect us to be a serious contender to be one of those teams who make the cut.”

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet

Jimmie Johnson has accomplished so much, so quickly that expectations are almost unnaturally high–winning an average if 4 ½ races per year over the course of four years has a way of doing that (Johnson’s 18 career wins already tie him for 32nd on the all-time list). And with no changes to a team that has proved it can handle the pressure year-in and year-out–Johnson has made both Chases for the Championship, finishing an achingly-close second in 2004–the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet will likely have another excellent season. “I’m very proud of this race team year after year,” says Johnson. “They want to compete for a championship. I think everybody saw how bad we wanted [it] last year, but it just wasn’t our year. We’ll just keep plugging away. It’s got to happen sooner or later.”

Terry Labonte, No. 44 Kellogg’s Chevrolet

Terry Labonte is running 17 races in this, his last season, and 10 of those starts will come in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 44. But, given Labonte’s history–he is one of just 13 drivers to win at least two titles–and the fact that he’ll be driving at some of his favorite tracks, no one would be terribly surprised to see him notch another win or two before he hangs it up.

Kyle Busch, No. 5 Lowe’s Chevrolet

Busch is embarking on a mission that very few drivers in modern NASCAR are willing to tackle: he is driving a full Nextel Cup schedule and a full Busch Series schedule. Though the 21-year-old is well aware of the demands he’ll be facing, he’s convinced the difficult double will be worth the effort. “I’m starting out with the mentality that I’m running for a championship in both series,” he says. “There is no doubt it’s going to be tough, but I think running on Saturdays will help me get a feel for how the race will pan out on Sundays–what the track will do and what taking two tires versus four will do. Even though I’m going to have a lot less down time, I love to race so [running both] is something that I really want to do.”

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