The Frontstretch: This April Fools' Day, The Joke's On NASCAR's Most Powerful Team by Bryan Davis Keith -- Monday April 2, 2012

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This April Fools' Day, The Joke's On NASCAR's Most Powerful Team

Bryan Davis Keith · Monday April 2, 2012

 

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 fan base 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 Jeff Gordon will always be the face that changed the driver development paradigm, that same link will forever be associated with Hendrick Motorsports 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?

_____

Hendrick Motorsports has stuck on win No. 199 as an organization since Jimmie Johnson’s victory in Kansas last Fall – a streak of a dozen races.

Since Jimmie Johnson took the checkers at Kansas last fall, Hendrick Motorsports 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-5 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.

Jimmie 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 Jeff Gordon wasn’t going to let him have it that easily. The former master of Martinsville has remained a top-5 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 rear-view 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.

April Fools!

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 ten 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-checker played out as two drivers up front with 130-lap-old tires versus rows of cars with fresh rubber chomping at the bit.

Clint Bowyer and Michael Waltrip weren’t smiling after Sunday. The driver’s banzai move on the restart was one of several factors preventing Hendrick Motorsports from achieving their 200th win at Martinsville.

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.

19 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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Carl D.
04/02/2012 11:11 AM
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BDK

I’m assuming this column is a day-late April Fools joke. You’re blaming Bowyer for the wreck? All Johnson had to do was stay at the top or back out of the throttle and let his teammate and Bowyer fight it out for the win, rather than come down on Gordon and Bowyer and cause the wreck that took all three of them all out. How many times have you seen a third-place driver dive-bomb the front two on a restart and end up with the lead? When Kyle Busch does it, we talk of his great talent. When Jimmie Johnson does it, we talk of his determination to win. When Bowyer does it, and ends up wrecked by a driver who clearly should know better, you call him a fool and say he’s inept. I think your bias is showing.

DoninAjax
04/02/2012 11:22 AM
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If there was no top 35, the 10 car wouldn’t have had to stay on the track. ‘Nuff said.

Frank
04/02/2012 12:01 PM
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“bonsai move”??? Hmmmm

babydufus
04/02/2012 12:14 PM
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boneheaded? hmm. possibly, but i’m not so sure. at least he was trying to win the race even if it was with an ultra low percentage move. the 39 did bump him pretty good but he didn’t put him there. and to continue giving credit where credit is due, at least he’s better as a race car driver than karaoke singer… but that’s still not saying much.

Managing Editor
04/02/2012 12:25 PM
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Frank,

The spelling mistake you saw has been corrected; in this website system, the typical “banzai” spelling is listed as a mistake and autocorrects for our editors – to the flower instead. This one wasn’t caught.

Thanks for reading and writing in!

Earner
04/02/2012 03:02 PM
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With 8 laps to go whatever ruett did would not change the points so the argument dos’nt wash…Used to think ruett got a bad break…now I’m thinking he’s not to bright…Is’nt he in a Hendricks associated car? …Bowyer while unlikely to survive was going for the win (that between him & Gordon) & who ever made the stupid comment that JJ should have backed off was way of base (not to bright see ruett) & Yes the Bias of this article showed (a bif Jeffy or JJ fan wrote it)

Carl D.
04/02/2012 03:57 PM
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Earner…

I’m not saying he should have backed off; the point I was trying to make, though I didn’t do it very well, was that if he hadn’t gone low and made contact with Gordon, he could have avoided causing the wreck. A third place finish would have been better than a 12th place finish. I had no probelm with JJ racing for the win, but not is such a reckless manner.

Doug in Washington (State)
04/02/2012 04:08 PM
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Actually what Reutimann was doing was dictated by the car owner to stay out. In fact, Baldwin had parked the #36 dozens of laps earlier so that the #10 could get one more point, which would have worked if the #10 hadn’t finally given up the ghost. He only needed 3 more laps. As it was, if there’d been one more GWC the #18 would have gone past and made it a 2-point loss.

I like Tommy Baldwin and his small team, but it’s stuff like that which makes me cringe. Parking a sponsored car to get points for the Danica car will probably coma back to bite, as Ollies might decide that’s enough.

Of course, part of this is on SHR for not providing Baldwin with good cars for Reutimann. He’s running cast-off RCR/EGR garbage that’s well past its prime. Works OK on Plate tracks but not on anything else.

As for the Bowyer/Gordon/Johnson incident, I think Bowyer’s car could have held it IF Johnson hadn’t shoved Gordon back towards the curb. I don’t think Johnson knew Bowyer was there, and was shoving Gordon back into the inside after it looked (to him) that Gordon was shoving Johnson up into the marbles. Newman’s punt just got Bowyer further in than he would have been. In any case Johnson and Gordon’s fates were sealed when they didn’t pit. Sitting ducks, no matter what they did.

rwm
04/02/2012 05:18 PM
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Easy to sit in the press box or in front of the TV and make judgements on the folks actually in the drivers seat or paying the bills. Those guys (all of them) put their butts on the line both physically and financially (in the case of the owners). For you or any other writer/blogger/opinion poster to say some of the things they do is over the line. If you are a journalist, report the facts. Don’t just spout your opinions without knowing full well you’ll never hear a word form those you are taliking about.

MIracefan
04/02/2012 11:49 PM
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A race actually broke out at the end and everyone has to apologize for every move they make. Say Thank You to points racing and the Chase.

Johnson and Gordon on OLD tires……what did they expect? Drivers are going to challenge the sitting ducks!!!!!

IMO a very biased story.

john
04/03/2012 12:53 PM
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You forgot to add “NASCAR’s Stupid Top 35 Rule” to your poll.