Last April at Martinsville Raceway, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon were busy engaging in a spirited battle to the checkered flag. Johnson came out on top, but the ending didn’t matter as much as the message; the second win for Hendrick Motorsports in as many Car of Tomorrow events proved to be the opening statement to their yearlong quest for domination. The operation left the track a clear favorite; in fact, the only challenger that stood between a 1-2-3 finish on the podium for the organization was none other than Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin. At one point during that event, Hamlin looked ready to beat ’em all; but a faulty pit stop cost him track position and, ultimately, the race win for the second week in a row.
What resulted was an all-too-familiar scenario; Hendrick was ecstatic, while Gibbs just sulked. As the season progressed, Hendrick looked to be in front of the curve when it came to both engineering and late-race adjustments; Gibbs came to lead the pack simply in “times a team can shoot itself in the foot.”
But one year later, it looks like the tide is turning.
Clearly, Hamlin’s win Sunday wasn’t the first bullet fired out of the Gibbs arsenal this season; Kyle Busch‘s five-race stint atop the points standings is proof enough their Toyotas have been stout from the get go. But momentum can be a fleeting thing, and the late-race Bristol barbarics left JGR experiencing a sense of deja vu. That race was much like the Martinsville one described above; the win was in the palm of their hands until they chose to simply give it away. Busch led until his power steering blew, causing him to spin; then, Tony Stewart was in control, only to be wrecked by Kevin Harvick. With two down and one to go, it looked like Hamlin would get that trophy; but when the cars sped up for the final time, his fuel tank decided it’d soaked up its last drop of Sunoco for the day.
Just like that, Gibbs went from hero to zero. Repeating a running theme from last season – in which repeated challenges to the Hendrick juggernaut were met with a black cat and a functioning voodoo doll – they watched helplessly as RCR driver Jeff Burton went to victory lane instead. No, it wasn’t Hendrick; but as another Chevrolet enemy claiming the upper hand, it might as well have been.
“You definitely start to have doubts,” said Hamlin about the luck, taking a break from basking in the glow of victory at Martinsville. “When the Car of Tomorrow first came out at the beginning of last year, we were in position to win five or six races easily, and things never worked out for us.”
Those memories are still fresh from ’07, the consequences painful; while race after race for Gibbs fell by the wayside due to part failures, wrecks and pit-road miscues, Hendrick sprinted out to an engineering and psychological edge they never relinquished. While Stewart briefly got his act together midsummer, during the Chase neither he nor Hamlin seriously challenged the Hendrick duo of Johnson or Gordon; in fact, both were shut out of victory circle during the season’s final 10 events. It’s a scenario you don’t get over in a heartbeat, even with the early success of ’08; and when signs of a repeat come flashing on your radar screen, it’s easy for the heart to beat nervously all over again.
“It’s hard to be patient,” said Hamlin, who entered Sunday’s race the worst off of the three JGR drivers at 15th in points. “When you get so close to winning so many races and something bad happens or, you know, things just don’t work out in your favor at the end and you end up losing a win, it’s tough to maintain confidence. It’s tough – your self-esteem starts going down. It takes its toll on you – last week, was just like how many times do we have to go through this.”
That self-esteem loss caused Hamlin to bottom out by calling his luck “cursed” this week; but come Sunday, the rest of the field was cursing him. Yet another pit-road miscue put the No. 11 car outside the top 20 near the halfway point; Hamlin chose to pit on his own accord when the rest of the lead lap cars stayed on track. That left the driver in a position where he had to dice through half the field; but patience, persistence and the pit strategy of a two-tire stop proved enough to make up the difference. Passing Burton for the lead with 74 laps to go, it was clear sailing for the No. 11 the rest of the way.
“We made some great adjustments on the car,” Hamlin explained. “We were good on the long run when it counted.”
And that keeps JGR up there battling for the long-term. While Busch suffered from a second straight race of mechanical woes – dropping him from first to fifth in points – the three-car organization now has all of its three teams in the top 10. That places them ahead of RCR – the darlings of two weeks ago – but most importantly, kept their Hendrick rivals at bay at a track where they had won six of the last seven events. Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson and Casey Mears all finished behind Hamlin; of course, all but Junior remain behind the three Gibbs cars in the points. That’s a good psychological boost for a program that would like to keep that advantage during the regular season – however meaningless – for as long as possible.
In the meantime, the all-important victory total has tilted their way – Gibbs now has two regular season wins while Hendrick has zero (Gibbs is now tied with Roush for the team lead in that category). Chevrolet’s also down 2-1 to the Gibbs organization in itself, a bitter pill to swallow considering their former number two program is busy singing the praises of someone else.
“For [Toyota] to kind of take a lead role and say that they would do whatever it took to help us fix the problems [the team had entering this season] – that goes a long way,” crowed Hamlin about the head honchos behind the Camry. “And that is what you look for in a manufacturer. I couldn’t be prouder to be with them.”
Carrying that banner proudly, the Gibbs bunch is putting together performances worthy of a championship-caliber team. But most importantly, they recovered from a week in which they tripped over their own two feet.
Now, the key is not to do it again.
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