While Denny Hamlin stood in Victory Lane, vanquishing the Jimmie Johnson desert demons from November 2010 his former championship rival stood quietly on pit road, accumulating them. Just a year and a half after earning Mr. Five-Time, in part because of some crafty fuel strategy at this very track the all-time Phoenix lap leader and the most accomplished within the Yankee-Hendrick dynasty was left with his own explaining to do.
“I’m not really satisfied,” he quipped after the race, fidgeting around the same types of crew questions Hamlin had to deal with on that fateful day. “I really felt like we had a car to win the race with. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out.”
That’s putting it mildly, the best example of a Hendrick household appearing somewhat untidy two races in. After pacing the field for 55 laps, looking at times like the No. 48 car could enter its own time zone at will a fourth-place finish rang hollow for HMS’ top entry. Mere days after the type of cheating allegations that usually have the Lowe’s Chevrolet responding by whipping the field, crew chief Chad Knaus and company simply whipped themselves with a self-inflicted mistake – one that also gave their once-dangerous title contender Hamlin both closure and confidence.
Talk about turning the tables in a heartbeat.
“We had a little hiccup on pit road,” was Johnson’s politically correct version of events. “It kept us from really racing for the win. But we still fought back and got into it.”
Of course, left unsaid was the opinion of Johnson’s supporting cast, just like Hamlin had to keep his mouth shut mere moments after a call by head wrench Mike Ford cost them the race and, ultimately, the season title back in ‘10. This time around, in Johnson’s case it was loose right-rear lugnuts that left him mired in 24th halfway through the race, restarting in traffic on a Phoenix pavement where passing remains at a premium. For a moment, it looked like they might actually make it, working up to fifth before a final series of cautions put fuel front and center on everyone’s minds instead. But noticeable to the naked eye was an ugly final segment where Johnson also lacked the speed he showcased early on, especially beside another car (see: Brad Keselowski). It’s an ugly pattern, started last year where adjustments left them headed in the wrong direction late.
Yet J.J., whose 25-point appeal will be the chief subject of this week’s NASCAR _Entertainment Tonight_ actually appears the best-positioned of the HMS foursome over the long-term. Consider Jeff Gordon, last year’s feel good winner was simply satisfied to bring the 2012 version of his Chevrolet home in one piece. The No. 24 was so loose at times, it looked like the veteran was dirt-tracking outside in the desert en route to eighth place.
“I was very happy with some of the calls that we made to get track position,” he said. “But there at the end, our car just wouldn’t take off. All in all, we were solid. We needed a solid day like this after last week.”
Solid but not spectacular, the difference a year makes which is notable considering the No. 24 stumbled during last year’s Chase. Yes, it’s ungodly early, and most would kill to snag a top-10 finish after an ugly Daytona DNF. But remember, Hendrick Motorsports and its behemoth $350 million value doesn’t deal in B+ finishes. They deal in title trophies, and coming off a Daytona where the team led just one lap – their worst total in 12 years – an impartial observer would expect a better bounceback effort considering Johnson’s dominance (no one has led more laps at Phoenix), Gordon’s 2011 victory here and newcomer Kasey Kahne’s triumph in the Fall.
It was Kahne’s day in particular that turned the most ugly, getting loose and smacking the wall on his own which cost him 30+ laps inside the garage. So far, he’s needed new sponsor Farmers Insurance: wreck in the Shootout, destruction in the 500 and carnage here while former No. 5 driver Mark Martin sits seventh in points. And then, there’s the matter of one Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the lone HMS driver inside the top 12 (fifth) but whose 14th-place finish came laced with expletives about the ugly handling of his National Guard Chevy. Indeed, after running 25th most of the day it took some timely fuel mileage follies and a few late-race adjustments to hide what was a horrible follow-up to last Sunday’s runner-up performance. Six times now, since that last win back in mid-2008 Earnhardt has run second; and six times now, he’s failed to earn so much as a top-5 finish the following week.
Surely, some of you are screaming bloody murder at merely the thought of claiming Hendrick’s set for a down year. Two races is a fairly small sample size; at the same time, it’s also shown us the offseason growth of several major rivals. Roush Fenway Racing won the pole, then the 500; they occupy three of the top-10 spots in points. Richard Childress Racing finished 5-6-7 in that race, then followed it up with Harvick coming within a whisker of victory Sunday. Joe Gibbs Racing also has its three-car fleet energized, solidly inside the top 10 and with Hamlin and, to a lesser extent Joey Logano and Kyle Busch exorcising the past.
“Hopefully,” said Hamlin after exiting this car. “It’s a sign of things to come.”
Meanwhile, for Hendrick this week, the only “sign of things to come” is a whole bunch of crafty arguments created for a rather public, season-opening flogging of a penalty. That’s not exactly the way you would expect an organization holding ten Sprint Cup titles to their name to start a season. And the fact they didn’t immediately punch back – the hallmark of their tenure in the Cup Series – was enough to make Vegas just a tad bit more important.