Jimmie Johnson sealed Hendrick Motorsports' 200th win with a composed drive at Darlington Raceway, After several near misses, not least when Johnson and Jeff Gordon looked set to finish 1-2 at Martinsville in April before a mistimed lunge by Clint Bowyer took both out, the Hendrick team finally reached its landmark milestone, having been stuck on 199 since Johnson's last win at Kansas last year.
“I didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” said team-owner Rick Hendrick. “I thought we were going to haul those [200th-win commemorative] hats around forever!”
Johnson, who scored all of his 56 wins and 5 championships with the team, held his nerve on the final restart, following a spin for a beleaguered Kurt Busch, and was able to get a clean getaway, while just like at Richmond, Tony Stewart struggled to get up to speed, allowing Denny Hamlin past into second. Behind them, Kyle Busch finished a strong fourth and Martin Truex Jr. bounced back from his wreck at Talladega to finish fifth.
“We’ve been awfully close to getting the 200th win for the last month or two and I’m very happy that we closed the deal today,” said Johnson, who led a race-high total of 134 laps. “My mind goes back to the early days of Hendrick Motorsports, the people that won those early races, worked on those early cars, and helped Rick build Hendrick Motorsports to what it is today.”
Since Geoff Bodine got the ball rolling at Martinsville in 1984, 14 different drivers have logged victories with the Hendrick organisation, including the late Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte, as well as current NASCAR stars Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, Casey Mears, Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The latter had a disappointing day, finishing down in 17th after recovering from a lap down in the early running, but his day didn't hold a candle to that of Jeff Gordon, Hendrick's winningest driver with 85 wins in 18 years.
If it wasn't for bad luck then Gordon would surely have none at all, as he twice suffered left rear punctures, a record Lewis Hamilton's calamitous pit-crew would be proud of. His 35th place was the fourth sub-30th place finish of the season, and marks his worst ever start to a season. Despite showing strong pace everywhere, Gordon has been hamstrung by an engine failure at Daytona, a puncture-induced crash at Bristol, a pit-lane penalty in California, contact with Bowyer at Martinsville while in contention for victory, more engine maladies in Kansas, another cut tyre at Richmond and 'the big one' at Talladega last week.
“I said this a couple of weeks ago – bad luck is when you run over something that no one else can find and you cut a tire. We did that twice tonight,” said Gordon, who has tumbled to 24th in points. “I don’t know. I am baffled. All the good things that happened to us all these years to win races are biting us right now. But we know it can’t last forever.
“It’s almost comical. Tonight? My goodness, to run over something, possibly the same thing, and cut two left-rear tires back to back, you’re baffled by it. It’s not a fun thing, I can tell you that.”
After a catastrophic 2011, things have picked up for Denny Hamlin in 2012. Although he is yet to win in the Nationwide Series, having thrown away comfortable victories at Richmond and at Darlington Friday night, Hamlin has already picked up two wins in Cup with his new crew chief Darian Grubb, who made the right strategy call again here. When everyone else pitted under caution on lap 199, Grubb made the call for the Joe Gibbs Racing no.11 to stay out and gain track position, a move which paid off handsomely when a third caution waved for debris on lap 230, allowing him to get back in sequence with the leaders' pit-stop cycle. Although he didn't have the car to win, second was still a fine achievement.
“I didn't have quite the car we needed to win today, but second isn't bad,” Hamlin said. “Our finish is because of the crew chief [Grubb] making good calls and the pit crew making good pit stops. It kept us in the ball game and kept us with track position up front.”
A battling performance from Tony Stewart was one of the race's highlights. Under caution with 85 laps to go, Smoke's clutch failed and he had to be bump-started by his crew. Having dropped to the tail end of the lead lap, Stewart took the opportunity to pit again just before the green-flag fell, which allowed him to stay out and gain track position when the rest were forced to pit. However with the tank running dry in the closing stages, the no.14 began to suffer from fuel-pickup issues which hampered his charge, leaving him powerless to resist the attentions of Hamlin on the last restart.
“You know, considering the hurdles of the day, I’m pretty happy with a third-place run,” Stewart confessed. “That's why we won a championship last year: we never give up.”
Boxed in behind Stewart on the last restart, Kyle Busch was unable to gain any ground and was forced to settle for fourth, ahead of Truex. Behind him were the Roush-Fenway duo of Matt Kenseth in sixth and Carl Edwards seventh, a result which sees the 2011 runner-up climb into the top-10 in points.
“We pitted for four tires there at the end and got back to seventh, but I think it was still the right move,” Edwards said. “It was a hard-fought day. I raced hard with Matt there at the end and almost wrecked us both, so I'm glad I didn't, but it was pretty fun.”
The third member of the premier Ford team Greg Biffle sat on the pole and led 74 laps, but a loose-handling car dropped the point leader down to 12th at the finish. His third finish outside the top-10 this year means his gap to second-placed Kenseth has now been reduced to just two points. The main beneficiary of Biffle's woes was Richard Petty Motorsports' Australian superstar Marcos Ambrose, who pulled off an audacious 3-wide pass on the restart which leapfrogged him up to a brilliant ninth.
“I came from Mars!” Ambrose joked later. “I re-entered orbit around lap 260 and the last 80 laps was a lot of fun. We were two laps down and just fought our way back.”
Rounding out the top-10 was the third Joe Gibbs Toyota of Joey Logano, whose victory in the Nationwide Series on Friday was his second in a row and his third of a break-through season for the 21-year old.
“[It was] pretty awesome – I was surprised,” Logano said. “We're doing a good job. We worked our way all the way up to fourth and thought, 'Man we're doing good,' but, man, I suck on restarts. I can't get going on restarts and that's where I lose so many spots.”
After the dizzy heights of Talladega, Kurt Busch was brought back to earth with a bump, literally, at Darlington, as he was involved in a post-race fracas with Ryan Newman which saw both pit-crews get involved.
“We’re looking at everything we can and trying to get everything lined up,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president for competition, with penalties expected this weekend.
Meanwhile the hype surrounding Danica Patrick continued, as the Go Daddy girl drove a tidy race in only her second Sprint Cup start, finishing 6 laps down in an uneventful 31st.
“She ran good lap times,” her team-owner Stewart said. “There was a period in the race when she set her balances at her best – they said she was within a tenth of the leaders at that point in the race. So I’m really, really proud of her.”