There is only one question on everyone's mind in 2008: "Can Hendrick Motorsports be beaten?"

There is only one question on everyone's mind in 2008: "Can Hendrick Motorsports be beaten?"

With back-to-back championships for the No. 48 in 2006 and 2007, plus the absolutely dominant performance of Jimmie Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon last year, that is not an easy question for rivals to answer. After all, a precedent for this dynasty has already been set when Rick Hendrick drivers once combined for four straight championships from 1995 through 1998 with Terry Labonte narrowly beating Gordon for the 1996 championship, while the Rainbow Warrior took the top spot in the other three years.

Hendrick was formidable in 2007, placing three of their four drivers in the Chase, but popular opinion is they will be even stronger in 2008 with the addition of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the roster. Moreover, Casey Mears moves from the No. 25 team to the No. 5 that qualified for last year's playoffs with Kyle Busch behind the wheel, and there is a very real possibility that all four Hendrick mates could make the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. If that happens, they will have a 33 percent chance of winning a third straight title.

To beat Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, rival teams are going to have to improve in five areas:

Improve their COT program

NASCAR's plans originally called for a three-year program to phase in what was billed as the Car of Tomorrow, with most of the 2007 races to be contested on short tracks. Hendrick Motorsports' mastery of the new body style began with a victory for Kyle Busch at Bristol, and then Johnson and Gordon combined to sweep the next four events. At the end of the season, Johnson added three more COT victories to his resume, and Gordon took the only contest in that body style on a superspeedway when he won the fall race at Talladega.

However, the two championship contending teams missed a critical test session at Atlanta in the fall, with Gordon saying at the time, "there's nothing that is going to do to help us win the championship this year.  Our focus is to win this championship this year, and that's why we made that decision." Later, however, he admitted that "this is probably going to be one of the toughest places with that car next year."

The new body style has proved to be incredibly sturdy, but difficult to pass under green flag conditions. The slightest miscalculation on setups is going to have a major impact on the driveability of the car, and this could prove costly to them next year since one-third of the races are contested on similarly configured, 1.5- and two-mile tracks.

Qualify better

Because passing is going to come at a premium next year, drivers are going to have to get off to a great start during the weekend. Track position has always been critical in NASCAR, and next year will be no exception.

Last year, Johnson and Gordon had the best starting position in the entire field, with Johnson beginning the day with an average of 9.8 and Gordon at 11.3. At the end of the Phoenix race in November, the only man who could mathematically catch Johnson conceded. After finishing a respectable 10th, Gordon stated that the only way they could beat the No. 48 was if he had trouble at Homestead. During the finale weekend, Johnson dominated practice and logged his third pole of the season—rubbing salt in the wound of the competition, and removing all doubt that this would be his year.

During the season, Gordon won the most poles at seven, and the only driver to come close was the "Rocketman" Ryan Newman with five. His other qualification runs were much less impressive, however, and the average start for the No. 12 team was a modest 13.8 — only the fifth best in the field. Look for Newman to improve overall in 2008, and he could be a wild card to win the championship if he qualifies up front in the final 12 races. If Denny Hamlin is over his sophomore slump and the adjustment to Toyota is not too steep for Joe Gibbs Racing, he might also be a pleasant surprise. In 2007, he had the third best average starting position at 12.4.

Beat them off the pits

A NASCAR race is more akin to a marathon than a sprint, and teams jockey for that all important track position at the end of the day. Pit strategy is key to winning—a point that was proved by Casey Mears at Lowe's in the Coke 600 and Juan Montoya at Infineon—but more often than not, the top spot on the track goes to the driver with the fastest pit stop.

Gordon particularly has struggled with aero push on his speedway cars in recent years and when he is mired in traffic, he is too often incapable of completing a pass as his car tightens up. Aerodynamics will play on lesser role in 2008 with the new spec bodies, but what the teams may gain in predictability is going to be rendered meaningless unless NASCAR allows them a little more leeway to make changes and differentiate the speed of one car versus another. More than ever, the 2008 season is likely to be won in the pits, and the bad news for the competition is that HMS has made very few changes in terms of their over-the-wall crew.

Finish races

There is an old adage in racing that states, "in order to finish first a driver must first finish," and this also contributed to Hendrick's domination. Gordon was one of only three full-time drivers who posted only a single DNF, along with Hamlin and Elliott Sadler. Most importantly, he finished with the leaders nearly every week, posting a Modern Era record 30 top-10s. That added up to a lot of points and what might have been an insurmountable lead by the end of the regular season.

Until last year, drivers have been able to overcome one bad finish during the playoffs, but in 2007 most pundits agreed that this championship would be won by a driver who was error-free. They were right. Not only did the driver have to be error free, he had to be perfect, and Johnson and Gordon swept the top 15 in the final 10 races.

The good news is that two drivers were running at the end of every race in 2007. Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer both managed to coax their mounts home without fail, so if the Hendrick heroes hit a spate of bad luck, next year's championship could be determined by consistency.

Quite frankly, win

In 2007, NASCAR added a 10-point bonus for winning races that helped seed the top drivers in the Chase. They also increased the number of points earned by the winning driver by 10 markers to put a premium on finishing first. They were successful. With the playoffs looming, drivers who were guaranteed a spot in the Chase went flat out for victory, and Johnson won the final two events of the regular season. His pair of victories at California and Richmond made him the top ranked driver at New Hampshire to start the Chase, and four consecutive wins at the end of the season sealed his championship.

Between them, Hendrick drivers won half of the points paying races last year. Johnson's 10 victories combined with Gordon's six and one each for Busch and Mears. To beat these teams in the points, drivers are going to have to beat them on the track, and that proved to be a tall order indeed last year.