The hats celebrating the 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory for Hendrick Motorsports made an appearance again on Sunday, this time at Martinsville.
They were on the way to Victory Lane with ten laps remaining, when Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon ran first and second, with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. third. It looked as if, finally, they were going to come out of the box and actually get worn, tossed about and then saved for posterity.
Enter David Reutimann, Clint Bowyer and a green-white-checkered finish, and the hats went back in the cupboard on the trailer where they have rested since Kansas, last October, when Johnson gave boss Rick Hendrick No. 199.
Reutimann, who was driving the No. 10 for Tommy Baldwin Racing, brought the caution flag out with two laps remaining by failing to get off the racing surface after his engine broke a timing belt. In the resulting mayhem on pit road, 13 of the 15 lead-lap cars came down for tires and fuel.
The only ones who didn’t were Johnson, the leader, and second-place Gordon.
That meant that the final restart, for the green-white-checkered, featured two cars with 130-lap-plus tires against 13 cars with at least two fresh biscuits and gas to finish the race. Both Johnson and Gordon were skosh fuel when it went back to green.
Not that it mattered a whole lot, given what happened next.
On the restart, Johnson and Gordon took off as they had been, only to have the cars with fresher tires take off faster. Clint Bowyer got a run to the inside heading to Turn 1, and slipped to the inside of Gordon’s car. On the way, he got a shove from eventual winner Ryan Newman, and that sent him into Turn 1 faster than intended.
The next thing you know, Gordon and Johnson were spinning and all hell was breaking loose. There went any chance of Victory No. 200. On the pit box, Rick Hendrick grimaced and pulled off his headset.
In the cars, the drivers were fuming.
“What the hell just happened?” Johnson demanded.
Gordon’s radio was a bit more…blue.
“There’s a lot of cussing,” Johnson said with a laugh. “A lot of frustration. Upset about what happens especially when it happens like it did with a last-minute, dive-bomb, and hope-that-it-works type thing. That stuff is just no fun.”
Gordon, who was incensed at Bowyer and wanted answers, calmed down enough to talk to the media.
“That’s Martinsville, green-white-checkered,” Gordon said. “There are no guarantees at this place. Anytime they stack them up like that you know it is going to get ugly in the first couple of corners. I was just hoping to get a decent start. I got a good jump, but then the tires spun. I didn’t know if Clint (Bowyer) had a big run or what happened. I guess he got a run and then the No. 39 gave him a pretty big shot. It pretty much took us all out there.”
It also took Team Hendrick out of another shot for No. 200.
Think on this one: Gordon led 328 of the 515 that eventually went in the books. He has a 14th-place finish to show for it, after having to pit for fuel on the final caution for the accident. Johnson went from leading to 12th at the end.
Neither one went to Victory Lane, nor has any Hendrick car since last October…unless you want to count Stewart-Haas Racing’s eight triumphs in the 16 races since the Chase began last Fall.
Stewart-Haas gets its engines and its chassis from Hendrick.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Gordon said. “Such a hard-fought race, we had the car to beat early on for most of the race. I knew Jimmie (Johnson) towards the end would be tough. He always is. He proved that, but we just stalked him and stalked him and stalked him.
“I wish there hadn’t have been a caution. I think we had the race right there. I still thought we had it on the restart. I didn’t get the best restart, but I wasn’t expecting somebody to be shoved to the inside of me and take it three-wide.”
That’s kind of the way it’s been for Hendrick, which saw its streak of five straight series titles ended by a customer team and hasn’t won in five months. Gordon sits outside the top 20 in points (21st), Kasey Kahne is 31st and in danger of having to qualify on speed, while Jimmie Johnson has been the epicenter of the NASCAR appeal heard ’round the world.
“That’s just the way our year has been going,” Gordon said. “It can’t go like this forever. We are just going to keep working, keep bringing race cars like that Drive To End Hunger Chevrolet right there and we will be fine.
“We had a great race, a great race car and that is all we can do is hold our heads up high and go from here.”
The fact that the top three cars with less than 10 laps to go were all from the Hendrick stable – including the one that’s steered clear of trouble, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – says something about how badly each wanted to win for the Boss. Everyone at HMS feels the pressure, and they’re looking to get this increasingly large monkey off their back.
“It was pretty intense,” Gordon said. “You could see both of us how hard we were driving how bad we wanted that. You saw (Dale Earnhardt) Junior doing the same thing earlier in the race. I thought he was the car to beat. When he got by me, I couldn’t touch him.”
Earnhardt was more ticked off because of what happened with Reutimann, but he was philosophical about the day.
“[It was] disappointing for everybody to run as good as we did and not finish up there,” he said. “I know Jeff is especially disappointed because of the way his year’s been going. And I’ve got a real good idea of what his opinion is about that.
“You know, Jimmie is trying to climb back into it, and they had the winning cars all day, both of them.”
Gordon just shook his head.
“That is just racing,” he admitted. “It happens sometimes like that. If it was meant to be, we would be sitting in Victory Lane right now. Obviously, it wasn’t meant to be.”
Maybe it’s not. Maybe Hendrick will stay stuck on 199 for the next five years.
Nah. That’s too far-fetched even for the most rabid anti-Hendrick fan to believe.
It will come, but it will come at a time and place of its choosing. Until then, the hats will sit, waiting to come out for Victory Lane and the celebration.
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