October 9th, 2011: Rick Hendrick won his 199th Cup Series race as an owner.
October 10th, 2011: Commemorative 200th win hats were special ordered.
They’ve been sitting in a box ever since.
Yesterday’s race at Martinsville was supposed to change that. In 1984 Rick Hendrick won his first cup race as an owner there, and ever since it has been the most successful track for his team.
Driver Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers with 7 wins and over 3,000 laps led. He had 25 top 5′s and 31 top 10′s in 38 starts heading into Sunday’s race. He hadn’t won at the half mile paperclip since 2005 (sweeping the season’s events), but had the fastest car in both practices and believed it was the best car he had ever had there. Jimmie Johnson learned well from Gordon, having 6 wins at the track, even Earnhardt has had success there, finishing second last season. To further boost the confidence of the team, Kasey Kahne sat on the pole.
And everything went according to plan. For 497 laps.
There wasn’t any chaos for much of Sunday, but there was a lot of good, hard, clean racing. Kahne never led a lap, surrendering his pole to Harvick on lap one. Harvick stayed there until Gordon took the top spot on lap 22 after working his way up from his 9th starting position.
That’s how the next 200-300 laps went. For much of the race Gordon put down consistent laps while the rest of the field raced for second. Or more correctly third or fourth. Hendrick cars classed the field all day, taking the top 2 or 3 spots for hundreds of laps. Jr. and Kahne each stayed inside the top 5 all day and the top 3 for a majority of it. That is until Kahne had engine troubles and had to drop out of yet another race this season.
Johnson was at the front briefly at the beginning, but had an early pit road speeding penalty that put him back in the field. Eventually he was able to make it back up and take the lead from Gordon, the first driver that had been able to do so at a time that wasn’t during green flag pit stops.
The closing laps of the race were shaping up to be an exciting dog fight between Rick’s top two all time drivers, each of which wanting to be the one to say they got the 200th win. Currently Gordon and Johnson have contributed to 140 of the 199.
Johnson’s lead was gradually being cut down by Gordon after he had been solidly in the lead for over 100 laps. With 10 laps to go it had been trimmed to just a couple car lengths, and by 5 to go Johnson was doing everything he could to keep the 24 behind him.
It looked like it was a second attempt of the 2007 finish, in which Gordon had been pushing and shoving Johnson trying to get by for the win, but couldn’t make the move.
This time he wouldn’t be denied. With three laps to go Gordon had his nose just in front of Johnson and looking posed to make the pass.
Then everything went wrong.
David Reutimann ‘s #10 Chevy stalled on the track, bringing out the caution.
Confusion began to mount immediately. Why, after coasting around the track for multiple laps, had the #10 not come to pit road? Why had he stopped on the track? Did anyone have enough fuel to make it through overtime? Should the drivers pit for fuel/tires?
Turns out the reasoning for the #10 car was points. Sitting on the brink of the top 35 they needed to stay out to maintain their track position. 79 laps down, coming off the track would have resulted in Kyle Busch, 80 laps down, to pass them and lose them a point. NASCAR had black flagged the team the lap his car stalled. He was attempting to make it to the pits when the engine broke and stalled the car on the track.
As for the pit calls, the Hendrick teammates were in a lose-lose situation. Choosing to stay out, Gordon’s team told him he was 5 laps to the good on fuel. Johnson also chose to stay out to battle his teammate for the win. However the rest of the field pitted and put on four fresh tires.
Had the Hendrick cars pitted, you would have seen the opposite. Being so dominant, other teams would have stayed out to put themselves in front and a chance to win.
The first Green-White-Checker ruined all dreams of the Hendrick podium sweep. Newman tagged a dive bombing Bowyer into turn one taking out multiple cars.
Johnson spun, Gordon recovered and kept going in 6th place, until he ran out of fuel under caution. After being pushed to pit road the 24 team fell a lap down.
Newman ended up holding off A.J. Almendinger for his first win of the season. Jr. came home third. Johnson and Gordon finished 12th and 14th respectively and thinking about what should have been.
Rick Hendrick is still waiting to wear those hats.