Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Sports

Hendrick Motorsports still on roll after win No. 200

CONCORD, N.C. — After months of wondering when any Hendrick Motorsports car would win again, NASCAR's powerhouse program is on a major roll heading into the Coca-Cola 600.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson broke a 16-race drought this month at Darlington for the team's 200th victory, then won the All-Star race last Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Throw in a Sprint Showdown victory by Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a win in the pit crew challenge by Johnson's No. 48 team and it's a nonstop party for owner Rick Hendrick.

"The company," Johnson said this week, "is still on a high from the 200th win, and the All-Star win just kicked it up another notch."

That could be bad news for the rest of NASCAR.

Johnson collected the program's 199th win in October at Kansas. But he fell short in his bid for a sixth consecutive title. And none of Hendrick's high-powered drivers — Johnson, Earnhardt, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne — could break through this year until Darlington.

Things have changed quickly.

Johnson doesn't see why that can't continue Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600, where he'll start third. Kahne qualified seventh, Earnhardt 12th and Gordon 23rd. And Johnson has won nine times at the 1½-mile track: three 600s, three 500-mile fall races and three All-Star events.

This week, Rick Hendrick hosted a party in Charlotte headlined by country music superstar Brad Paisley. Hendrick's current crop of stars was on hand along with others who won for him through the years, such as Geoff Bodine, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch.

"It's a huge accomplishment for our people, and I'm really proud of them," Hendrick, 62, said. "You know, you need to stop and celebrate something like this because they don't come along too often."

Johnson recalled how during the Darlington celebration on May 12, Hendrick told him that now they'd gotten to 200, "let's get 250."

That indicates a focus that has kept Hendrick Motorsports clicking off wins since Bodine got the first in 1984 at Martinsville.

Hendrick's goal now is to put all four cars in the season-ending Chase for the Championship. They have some work ahead to do that.

Earnhardt's No. 88 car sits third in points, and Johnson is fifth. Kahne is 16th, but just 54 points out of 10th place. The one struggling most is Gordon, way back in 24th. He likely needs a couple of wins to claim a wild-card spot for the Chase.

Hendrick said he has never had so many races get away from such talented groups as Gordon's No. 24 team and Kahne's No. 5. "Between Kasey and Jeff Gordon, probably the rottenest luck I've had in my racing career," Hendrick said. "I mean, I can't even remember as many flat tires or wrecks or Kasey is running third on the last lap and gets shoved into the wall. We have had some freak things break on the car."

Gordon has tried to stay positive through the problem. "You can only do that for so long, but we're still doing it," he said.

The way things are going for Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson wouldn't be surprised if he and his teammates were all fighting for the win come Sunday night — just like Rick Hendrick wants.

"I'm sure we will be reminded of that here before long," Johnson said.

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