Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, we saw a couple of really cool things happen for Hendrick Motorsports.
Naturally, Jimmie Johnson won the race, which broke him out of a 16-race winless drought that ran clear back into last year. The other big thing, obviously, was Jimmie’s win secured Rick Hendrick his 200th Cup victory as a car owner.
I hope no one for a second thinks that team is going to rest on its laurels now. It doesn’t matter how many races or championships they win, Johnson and Hendrick will always move forward. If you saw Jimmie’s Victory Lane interview on FOX Saturday night, he said Rick Hendrick congratulated him on the win and “now let’s go get 250.”
It has to be a huge relief for the organization, all the drivers and, of course, Rick Hendrick to get that win. After they got win No. 199 in October of last year, no one could ever have predicted it would have taken them this long to get to 200. So after some fun celebrations throughout the company, they will turn their attention to winning the all-star race Saturday night and then to winning the Coca-Cola 600 next Sunday evening.
So after you accomplish a major feat like Hendrick Motorsports has now done with 200 Cup wins, you wonder what the next big goal might be. Now Rick Hendrick has never shown partiality to any of his drivers. I have to believe, though, that the next big dot on his radar is getting Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Victory Lane and also helping him win his first championship.
Don’t get me wrong, Rick obviously has had his fair share of NASCAR Sprint Cup championships – five with Jimmie Johnson – four with Jeff Gordon and one with Terry Labonte. You just have to imagine what it would mean to Rick and the entire company, let alone the sport of NASCAR as a whole, for Dale Jr. to win his first championship. I would wager when/if that happens, that championship would probably go pretty close to the top of Rick’s all-time favorites.
Stop and think about Hendrick Motorsports' season so far. Jimmie Johnson was dethroned last year as champion. He has the C-post issues at Daytona, and the ensuing penalties and appeals of those. He gets wrecked out of the Daytona 500 on Lap 2. He lost an engine last week at Talladega Superspeedway. Despite all these issues, that team has been solid as a rock.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is running better than he ever has. The only thing missing from that camp after 11 races this season is a victory. He’s had eight top-10 finishes in 11 races. He’s third in the points, only 14 points behind series leader Greg Biffle.
For Kasey Kahne, it’s been an apples-and-oranges season already. In the first six races of this season, I believe his best finish was 14th and he was mired clear down at 31st in points. However, from race No. 7 up through Saturday night at Darlington, he and the No. 5 team have posted five consecutive top-10 finishes. The other amazing thing for that team is Kasey has qualified in the top 10 in every single race since the Daytona 500.
Finishing eighth at Darlington jumped Kasey another three spots in the points. For a guy who was once 31st, sitting now in 16th spot has to feel really good. So that team has to feel pretty good about what it has accomplished in the last month and a half. Like Dale Jr. and his team, I really believe a win for the No. 5 car is just around the corner.
Then, you have to turn to Jeff Gordon and the No. 24 team. If there was ever a perfect example of “if it weren’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all,” Jeff Gordon is it. When things are going like they are for Gordon, with a series of setbacks this season, you get to a point where you wonder what in the heck you can do different to change your luck. If you really break it down, out of 11 races, Jeff has only had a couple bad overall runs, but he simply doesn’t have the finishes to show for all his effort.
Being human, being a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and being 24th in the points and not looking like the 2012 Chase is in your future, you probably have to think Gordon and his team are starting to panic over there. The real story is, however, they really aren’t running that bad. The racing gods simply aren’t smiling on them at all and they have probably had the worst luck of all the teams in the Cup series in these first 11 races.
Sure there are still 15 races to go before the 2012 Chase field is set and, as we know, a lot of things can happen. Personally though, I just don’t think Gordon is going to make it into the Chase on points because Jeff is almost two full races behind in points. In my book, his best bet is to concentrate now on putting wins on the board and making the Chase via one of the two wild-card spots.
His luck has to turn. I said this the other night in Darlington, Noah only had to suffer through 40 days and 40 nights of rain, so Jeff and the entire team have to keep their collective heads up and things will eventually break their way.
Trust me, Jeff Gordon doesn’t have to prove to anyone that he is a great race car driver. He has won four NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. He is third on NASCAR’s all-time win list behind NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson. Let’s face it, Jeff is a future NASCAR Hall of Famer himself.
While right now a fifth championship doesn’t seem to be in his future, I remind you that no one, not even Tony Stewart, thought Stewart's championship was possible clear into mid-September last year. Jeff won three races last year, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls that off again this year. Actually that would be his saving grace because it’s going to take two or three wins to secure one of those wild-card spots I mentioned earlier.
On top of all that, though, Jeff Gordon had to take immense pride Saturday night when Hendrick Motorsports reached the 200 Cup win plateau. Stop and think about it a second – of those 200 wins, Jeff Gordon has won an amazing 85 of them.
That is pretty darn spectacular.