When Jimmie Johnson won at Kansas Speedway last October to give Hendrick Motorsports its 199th NASCAR Sprint Cup race victory, it seemed given that No. 200 would soon follow suit.
It’s safe to say things have not gone according to plan since then, at least not from the team’s perspective. Given that Hendrick drivers have averaged 10 race victories per year over the prior five seasons and have won at least five races per year every season since 2001, well, it’s understandable that they are eager to win No. 200. Especially since the team has gone 12 consecutive races without a victory.
It seemed like a done deal two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, when Johnson and Jeff Gordon were dueling for the victory, only to have David Reutimann decide to start and part on Lap 498, leading to a big wreck on the restart and a Ryan Newman victory.
Tonight at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne will all get a chance to finally seal the deal and give Rick Hendrick his 200th victory as a team owner. Kahne is in the best spot, having qualified fifth for the Samsung Mobile 500 behind two Michael Waltrip Racing Toyotas — polesitter Martin Truex Jr. and fourth-place Mark Martin — and the Roush Fenway Racing Fords of Matt Kenseth (second) and Greg Biffle (third).
Kahne was the only Hendrick driver to qualify in the top five, with Johnson 10th, Earnhardt 16th and Gordon buried in 34th. Each of the four Hendrick drivers has one career Cup victory at TMS, but this weekend, the squad appears to be clearly behind MWR and Roush Fenway so far. That said, the drivers are certainly motivated to deliver on their boss’ behalf.
“We know that Rick doesn’t come to every single race and right now he’s coming to every race because he doesn’t want to miss that 200th and none of us want him to,” said Gordon. “ ... We’ll keep digging, we’ll keep trying and we know it’s going to happen. Our teams are just too good and we’re running too good that we know it’s going to happen, just when? It would be nice to kind of get that one out of the way because it is somewhat becoming this heavy load that we’re carrying.”
The team is transporting a box of commemorative 200th victory hats from track to track each week, something Gordon is keenly aware of.
“It seems like that box of hats gets bigger and heavier every single weekend,” Gordon said. “I still find it hard to believe that he’s carrying them around. Pretty sure it’s in one of these trucks. I know that he’s not personally putting any extra pressure on any of us; we love making that guy happy. He does so much for us and we all want it bad for us, as well, but mainly for him. We want those hats to get used and then be sold for charity or something.”
Johnson, too, wants to get it done.
“We’re thinking about it all the time, and Rick reminds us all the time to get that out of the way,” said the five-time champion. “Man, we’ve been all around it, and have had a lot of shots at it this year. Unfortunately, we’ve haven’t been able to pull it off. We had one through three locked up there at the end of Martinsville, and felt like that was the day for it to happen. Rick won his first race there. Two hundred there would be a great way to book-end all of that. That would have been a real special weekend but it just didn’t work out.”
“It’s a real shame what happened at Martinsville,” agreed Gordon. “I felt like that was the perfect scenario to have three of his four drivers battling it out there at the end at Martinsville, which is such a special place.”
As for Earnhardt, he’s not making predictions, although he did win both his first Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series races at Texas.
“People know I’m not Nostradamus,” said Earnhardt. “So they don’t ask me questions about the future.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.