RIDGEWAY, Va. – Hendrick Motorsports has for the 21st century been the dominant force in NASCAR racing, winning more than 100 Cup races and six Cup titles in that span. Equipment built and supplied by HMS won a seventh title just a season ago with Tony Stewart at the controls. HMS has two drivers with nine Cup trophies between them, along with the sport’s Most Popular Driver under the same roof.
HMS has also for just that long and even longer been a conundrum. In a sport with outlaw roots and a fanbase known for being raw and proud of it, it was Hendrick that brought a babyface talent in Jeff Gordon to the Cup level in the early 1990s, throwing out decades of precedent for driver development. Instead, they turned the youngster loose to tear up cars and learn on the big stage rather than working up the ranks.
Gordon brought with him not only a wealth of driving talent, but a clean-cut image that could sell finishing school just as easily as it did automotive finishes. In a sport that’s always loved winners, to this day Gordon remains as polarizing a figure in the stands as they come, even with four championships and more than 80 race wins on the books.
The same story can be told for Jimmie Johnson. The man went on the longest championship-winning streak NASCAR racing has ever seen, winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard, the All-Star Race and every other “major event” imaginable on the way, yet still has not been embraced by race fans as one would expect from a certain future Hall of Famer.
Hendrick Motorsports is no longer alone as a corporate, business-like entity that’s as polished as it is aggressive and fast on the racetrack, the model of today’s Sprint Cup giants. But just as Gordon will always be the face that changed the driver development paradigm, that same link will forever be associated with HMS and the garage culture of big-time NASCAR.
Love them or hate them, HMS has won and won big, doing it their way. Who’d have thought April Fools’ Day would be the one thing to deprive them of one of their biggest accomplishments yet?
Since Johnson took the checkers at Kansas last fall, HMS has been gunning for their 200th win. For 496 laps, it was their Sunday, even if Kasey Kahne suffered through yet another ugly race, blowing a motor on lap 316 and spinning in his own oil for good measure afterwards (it’s the fourth Hendrick car; no one’s going to make it run well).
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had arguably the best Chevy of anyone in the field over the very long green-flag run, as it was the No. 88 that was running down the No. 24 car during the height of Gordon’s performance this weekend. Junior had a legitimate top-five car and was running third with four laps to go. He was primed to secure his best finish of the season at the track he came so close to winning at just a season ago.
Johnson and team were the epitome of cool all day Sunday, even after being busted on lap 99 for speeding on pit-road exit. Said the driver upon being penalized, “we’ll just pass them all again.” (The No. 48 had moved from 22nd to 10th within the first 75 laps).
Johnson and team methodically climbed through the field after both the penalty and a disappointing qualifying run, and by lap 356 took the point. A minor pit-road hiccup aside, the No. 48 stormed back to the lead by lap 393, primed to take the victory as part of his continued Recovery 2012 post-appeal tour.
But Gordon wasn’t going to let him have it that easily. The former master of Martinsville has remained a top-five contender at the shortest track on the circuit, but victory lane had eluded the No. 24 since 2005. Gordon’s always been close, but a step behind both Johnson and Denny Hamlin ever since.
Not this time; Gordon was the faster of the Hendrick cars. With Hamlin way in the rearview mirror, Gordon was all over Johnson’s bumper and ready to steal victory. It was No. 24 vs. No. 48 battling for the right to deliver Hendrick’s 200th win to Concord.
Lap 496 changed all that.
While the fight for the lead raged at the front, David Reutimann was limping around the track in the No. 10 well off the pace. It was clear that Reutimann was nursing a mechanical failure of some kind, as the car was unable to maintain a line anywhere near the low groove in either turn.
Reutimann missed pit road the first time around due to traffic, but then skipped it voluntarily. Multiple times. Trying to limp around any track for what would have been 10 laps with that kind of ailment is begging for trouble and trouble reared its head on lap 496, with Reutimann coming to a halt on the frontstretch and bringing out the yellow flag (the driver reported it was possibly a broken tie rod).
Though Reutimann would apologize post-race, it was a questionable move that ultimately decided the event. Top-35 concerns, valid as they were for the No. 10, does not change the fact that Reutimann admittedly knew his car was coming apart and stayed on track. All of the consequences of that decision rightly rest on the driver’s shoulders.
With both Gordon and Johnson up front, they were boxed in. Pit and they risked having the other nine or so guys on the lead lap stay out. Instead, they opted not to pit and every other lead-lap driver came in for fresh tires. In short, the green-white-checkered played out as two drivers up front with 130-lap-old tires versus rows of cars with fresh rubber chomping at the bit.
On paper, it looked a disaster. What actually happened was worse.
Clint Bowyer restarted third, the first driver in the field on fresh rubber and in prime position to steal the victory. Instead, Bowyer opted on the restart to make a banzai move into turn 1 that was doomed from the start. Bowyer, carrying speed that made Robby Gordon’s pass in the grass attempt at Watkins Glen a few years back look tame, never backed off the gas entering turn 1, slamming into the No. 24 car and going three-wide with Gordon and the No. 48.
Chaos ensued, taking Bowyer’s – along with Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt’s – shot at victory away in a cloud of smoke.
This move went beyond foolish. It reeked of desperation and even ineptitude. That Bowyer insisted even later that it wasn’t his fault, that he had been bumped into going three-wide on a one-groove short track, suggested even more so that the former Nationwide champion actually thought his move was legitimate and had a prayer.
Much like Kevin Lepage sounded spouting off about triggering a 20-car crash in a Nationwide Series race at Talladega years ago because he merged into oncoming traffic, Bowyer sounded incredulous and dismissive, as if the degree of idiocy he had just displayed didn’t register.
It wasn’t short-track tempers that decided this one. It was brainpower that rivaled the track’s size.
And ultimately, it was the only thing that Hendrick Motorsports couldn’t control or cover for on this Sunday. With win No. 200 theirs for the taking, the sport’s most powerful organization brought their “A” game and were standing two miles from victory with their cars 1-2-3 and an epic duel for the checkers about to unfold.
Nineteen laps later, the team prepared to leave Martinsville with three mangled cars and 199 wins, courtesy of a backmarker’s stubbornness and a driver whose boneheaded move rivaled that of his owner’s self-induced spin at Daytona scarcely a month ago.
Three years ago, I was in the grandstands at Rockingham watching the Carolina 200 ARCA race. The event was flat dominated by Ken Schrader, until he without warning ran out of fuel and handed the victory to Sean Caisse. One of the older folks sitting in front of me turned back and remarked, “That’s what makes this sport worth watching; the damnedest things happen.”
Leave it to April Fools’ Day to remind Hendrick Motorsports of just that fact.
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