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Two NASCAR Champions, But Only One Great Escape

If there’s anyone in NASCAR with a bigger smile than Sprint Cup winner Tony Stewart after Fontana, it’s a certain five-time champ who drives the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. For hometown hero Jimmie Johnson, the past ten days may have been more meaningful than any trip he’ll ever take to Victory Lane this season. Meanwhile, across the way his Hendrick teammate and “car owner” Jeff Gordon was perhaps the only one leaving with a frown after this race was mercifully stopped 71 laps short of its scheduled distance.

It’s two drivers, two different doses of Lady Luck and the type of ending that’s defined the changing of the guard within Hendrick Motorsports.

For Johnson, it was a case of salvaging the best of a sour situation. As the caution came out for rain on Sunday, it was hard to tell what was wetting the track faster: Mother Nature’s wrath or the oil seeping from underneath the No. 48 car. With the billowing smoke trail impossible to ignore, the flagman was reaching for a deadly black color when he was forced to reach for the one thing that could save this driver’s day: an umbrella.

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The “Magic Horseshoe” that Kevin Harvick once attributed to Jimmie Johnson has not been passed to teammate Jeff Gordon. The torch at HMS, however, was passed to Johnson and the No. 48 team some time ago.

A drenching downpour led to an early ending, one that allowed Johnson to grasp the final position inside the top 10.

“Either a piece of debris hit an oil line and knocked the fitting off or split the line and snagged a line,” Johnson said afterwards, en route to tenth place. “It’s just a wild change of events because when I came to pit road and took four tires, I wanted it to dry up real quick. Now I’m praying for rain. As I’m sending these signals to the man upstairs, he is really confused as to what I have been asking for in the last three or four minutes.”

Turns out God figured it out; lately, when it comes to J.J. he always does. Calling the race saved Johnson at least 25 points, the same amount he earned by doing _absolutely nothing_ a few days earlier. With a wink and a nod, John Middlebrook restored 25 _additional markers_ to Johnson’s total, negating a Daytona pre-inspection penalty that initially left him with fewer points leaving the 500 than the guy running the jet dryer. It was the final appeal heard ‘round NASCAR Nation, the one which will incite a fiery debate the rest of the season: there are many who think Johnson got away with murder.

But those accusations fall flat now when put up against the words “not guilty;” and in the blink of an eye, the No. 48 team has once again been inserted firmly into the Chase picture. That 50-point “bonus,” more than one-quarter of point leader Greg Biffle’s total leaves Johnson sitting ninth, just 39 from the top spot and solidly in position for the playoffs once again. Without it? He’s got 106, tied for 22nd and in need to actually race, not test during the regular season to catch up.

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Jeff Gordon’s world has been turned upside down ever since his protege Jimmie Johnson decided to become the face of Hendrick Motorsports and start winning championships.

The sad part is even in that worst-case scenario, J.J. has more points than the original Four-Time, teammate Jeff Gordon. Sitting 25th in the standings, the lowest he’s been after five events at any point during his 20-year Cup career the former Wonder Boy is wondering why Johnson’s stealing all the luck. Finally armed with a top-5 car at Fontana, Gordon’s day was doomed when the gas can – and in some ways, the gas man – remained stuck in his Chevy exiting pit road during a green-flag stop. The resulting black flag penalty left him a lap down when the rains came, but still within striking distance of a top-20 result. Instead? Adding insult to injury happened next; a pit stop that should have never transpired, under caution with the radar colored green ended with a tire rolling outside the pit box.

Out came the flag colored black, again, laughable to the point Gordon tweeted a fan joke about the Three Stooges subbing in on Sunday to pit his car. This no-no number two was costliest of all, leaving Gordon 26th and sitting with three finishes outside the top 25 in five races.

How bad is it for Gordon? Certainly, some of his problems can be attributed to little more than bad luck. At Daytona, he led a lap and was solidly in contention before cooking the engine. A few weeks later, Bristol’s potential top-5 performance ended courtesy the side pipes of his own teammate, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in a wreck most termed “one of those racin’ deals.”

Erase that incident, along with Fontana and you’ll earn Gordon back about 50 points.

That’s funny, now, isn’t it; Johnson was the one blessed with a 50-point boost instead. But that’s not a surprise. Ever since J.J. donned a Hendrick helmet, sliding behind the wheel of “Gordon’s” No. 48 (JG is technically listed as the car owner, after all) seemingly every racing “break” you can imagine has slid his way over Gordon’s. While Gordon lost Ray Evernham in 1999, Chad Knaus for Johnson is like his modern-day replacement, pushing the envelope and unafraid to cross the line. Remember when Gordon had that T-Rex car in the Winston? You know, the one that stomped the field and made NASCAR ever so politely say to Hendrick, “never again?”

Gordon, not Johnson used to shine in the center of that spotlight.

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The Key to Jimmie Johnson’s consistency? Stability. Johnson has known but one crew chief for the past decade – Gordon has had three.

Not now. Gordon’s crew chiefs since 1999 have consisted of Brian Whitesell, Robbie Loomis, Steve Letarte and Alan Gustafson, who have earned a single championship combined among them. That’s not to say there weren’t other opportunities; twice, under the old system Gordon would have won titles during the Chase era, in 2004 and again in 2007. But that “break” went Johnson’s way as well, the newer driver able to adjust to a system focused on the last ten races over a champion whose titles were built on leading early, then protecting during a few late-season fades.

While Gordon has faltered, Johnson has shined to the point the protégé is now the principal star at Hendrick Motorsports. When the two went head-to-head, in 2007 JG put forth an average finish of 5.1. In comparison, Tony Stewart’s was a 6.3 when he scored the 2011 season title last year; but for Gordon, that outstanding stat just wasn’t enough against Johnson. It seems whenever Four-Time has peaked (2004, ’07, ’09, ’11) there’s someone just that _little bit_ better to keep the No. 24 from becoming a serious contender.

Now, we’re at a point we’ve never seen before in Jeff Gordon’s history: a full decade without earning a Sprint Cup title. Turning 41 this year, many thought he’d already be retired and certainly, there can’t be too many chances left to win one more. All he’s asking for to turn things around is a little luck.

Too bad Hendrick’s new number one has been hogging it for years.

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