When one thinks of a juggernaut in any form of sport, be it Alabama in college football, Michigan State in college basketball, or Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR racing, the last thoughts to cross one’s mind are often about failures and mistakes. That begs a question: when a race team suffers through failures, makes countless mistakes, and still emerges as the one entity to make a cohesive statement at the Pocono Raceway this weekend, how should they be described?
Hendrick Motorsports was already the headliner entering this weekend, with fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. enjoying his first points lead in nearly a decade. In addition, the team was on-message. Dale Earnhardt Jr. played the humble leader, noting on Friday that “leading the points is not the championship.” Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson took the opposite tack, playing up the No. 88 as a formidable entity with whom to be reckoned. “It’s not a fluke,” said Gordon of the No. 88 squad. “They are the real deal this year. Junior’s attitude, and his focus, and how hard he is working [are] all showing up.”
Jimmie Johnson went even further, calling Jr.’s unexpected summer lead “a huge message sent… to the rest of the field,” even after Johnson surged to fourth in points on the heels of a dominant win at Indy that has left the penalties of the Daytona 500 all but a distant memory.
The only thing Hendrick Motorsports is more formidable at than winning Cup races is controlling the message. This weekend was no exception; it didn’t matter that Jimmie Johnson was surging, or that Earnhardt was riding the consistency wave instead of that of a dominant figure. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the points leader; he was the story; he was the man to beat, one race win or not.
Sunday opened up as more of the same–complete control over the Sprint Cup Series. Dale Earnhardt Jr. snatched the lead from Mr. Pocono, Denny Hamlin, early in the going, while Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon all mowed down the field with impunity in their charge to the front. By lap 40, Jimmie and Dale were running 1-2, with both Kahne and Gordon also nestled in the top 10.
10 laps later, the perfect weekend went haywire.
Lap 50 saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. fall off the pace with a transmission that wouldn’t stay in gear. The No. 88 car didn’t even bother with pit road, making the hard left-hand turn into the garage before the pit crew could even react to get back to their stall. Lap 81 saw Kasey Kahne, despite being a top 5 fixture and what he called the fastest car on the track in post-race remarks, lose valuable track position during green flag pit stops after running over an air hose coming into his stall. And then there was Jimmie Johnson. The No. 48 had been untouchable for the final 100 miles that were run this abbreviated Sunday, and had only one more restart standing between him and a sure-fire victory after Kurt Busch pounded the tunnel turn wall courtesy of a blown left front tire on lap 86.
But on that restart, Johnson slipped. Literally. Racing hard underneath Matt Kenseth entering turn 1 after both drivers got strong restarts, Johnson pushed up the track as the side-draft from Kenseth’s Ford seemed to take hold. Johnson ended up saving his car and avoiding the fate of Denny Hamlin (who went for a nasty wreck that sent him to the care center for abdominal pain, he would later be released), but a trophy turned into a 14th place finish.
There aren’t many teams that could go through that much in a single afternoon and emerge from the weekend victorious, atop the charts and in better shape than when they arrived. Story of Hendrick Motorsports.
The 32nd place finish that Earnhardt ended up scoring after completing 74 laps on the day still emerged as a storyline. Not only because the No. 88 team still kept the points lead even after their transmission failure, but more notably because Dale Earnhardt Jr. confirmed by himself in just a few seconds what his team and his teammates had been trying to sell all week–that this is a different Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he’s here to contend.
It was less than 30 seconds after Jr. parked his car in the garage on lap 50 that he had jumped from his own machine, grabbed a jack, and lifted his wounded race car off the ground in preparation for his crew’s arrival. His role as a driver on hold, Earnhardt was first man on the scene for his team, and he went right to work. The urgency, the passion that has been spoken of and debated continually was finally on display. This championship chase finally gained a face.
Jimmie Johnson finished 14th on a day that will hardly register on the radar screen for a driver that has already conquered the Tricky Triangle twice. He, like his teammate, made a statement even on a day when something went wrong. Before the late race spin that ended up costing the No. 48 their second victory in as many weeks, Johnson led 44 laps–27 more than any other driver in the field. The No. 48 car was, for the second week in a row, an unstoppable force on the long run and a clear member of the class of the field.
And even in that moment of despair when the No. 48 went spinning, Johnson saved his car… even as names including Kenseth and Hamlin went spinning. The magic may have been gone for a moment with the No. 48 team, but it came right back. A 14th place finish keeping the team’s race car in one piece and, had the rain stayed away, their race alive.
Sure, the spin itself was truly uncharacteristic of a five-time champion driver. But it’s important to keep Sunday in perspective. Jimmie Johnson didn’t have to score a result this race. He doesn’t have points to worry about, and he went into turn 1 with abandon, going for the win or the spin. And though Matt Kenseth expressed frustration about seeing his chance at a win evaporate because of Johnson’s gung-ho charge forward, all any competitor is going to remember from this Sunday is how again, Jimmie Johnson was in a league of his own. The six-pack is a realistic outcome in 2012.
Finally, there’s that race winner: some guy named Jeff Gordon. The hard luck driver of the 2012 campaign, Gordon finally caught a break. Johnson spun, the Red Sea parted, and the No. 24 car emerged from the chaos of lap 91’s restart unscathed and up front, waiting for mother nature to take care of the rest. A thunderstorm later, Gordon suddenly went from the outside looking in to the owner of a wild card slot, heading to a track in Watkins Glen that he has done nothing short of own during his long Cup career. Right behind him was Kasey Kahne–the same driver that despite botching a green flag pit stop only 17 laps before, scored another top 5 finish and tightened his grip on the first wild card slot.
70 of 98 laps led. A race win. Four Chase slots in hand heading to Watkins Glen. There’s not many teams out there capable of posting those kind of results on a day full of failures and mistakes.
Which begs the question: if Hendrick Motorsports isn’t a juggernaut, just what are they?
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.