Men without hats: Hendrick guys still chasing 200
It's been 12 races since the team owner has made it to Victory Lane
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
April 14, 2012 9:24 AM, EDT
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Blame it on the hats.
Somewhere there's a box full of ball caps ready to be opened when Hendrick Motorsports wins its 200th race in NASCAR's premier series, an event that's been on hold for 12 races since Jimmie Johnson claimed the organization's most recent victory in October of last season. Team owner Rick Hendrick jokes often about how he's been dragging around that box of hats from one race track to another, making sure to have them on hand when the momentous occasion at last arrives.
"It seems like that box of hats gets bigger and heavier every single weekend," Jeff Gordon said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway.
"It's on all of our minds. It's pressure. We want those hats to get used.
-- JEFF GORDON
It has to happen, eventually -- Hendrick is, after all, the most successful race team of NASCAR's modern era, with 10 premier-division championships to go along with those 199 race wins. But that looming inevitability doesn't relieve the growing sense of pressure -- and after the way the most recent Sprint Cup event ended, downright exasperation -- Hendrick's drivers feel within themselves to get the job done for their boss.
"I'm thinking about it all of the time, and Rick reminds us all the time that it would be nice to get that out of the way," Jimmie Johnson said. "Man, we've been all around it and had a lot of shots at it, and unfortunately just haven't been able to pull it off."
This current 12-race skid is the longest for Hendrick since 2010, in between Johnson victories at Bristol in March and Sonoma in June. During this span, Hendrick has seen wins by a future driver -- Kasey Kahne, in a Red Bull car at Phoenix last fall -- as well as affiliated drivers Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, who have combined to win six times using Hendrick chassis and engines. But the Hendrick boys themselves have been shut out.
They've come close, most notably two weeks ago at Martinsville Speedway, where Gordon, Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. held the top three positions and seemed in position for a sweep until a caution with three laps remaining and a wreck on the subsequent restart allowed Newman to steal the victory.
"It's a real shame what happened at Martinsville," Gordon said. "I felt like that was the perfect scenario, to have three of his four drivers battling it out there at the end at Martinsville, which is such a special place."
Hendrick's first victory came at Martinsville, with Geoffrey Bodine behind the wheel in 1984. "We had one through three locked up there at the end of Martinsville and felt like that was the day for it to happen, and what fine fashion," Johnson said. "Rick won his first race there. [Number] 200 there would be a great way to bookend that. It would have been a real special weekend, but it just didn't work out."
Now the quest for No. 200 moves to Saturday night's Sprint Cup event at Texas, where Hendrick has three victories, the most recent by Gordon in 2009. Johnson won here in 2007, and former Hendrick driver Terry Labonte claimed a victory on his home-state track in 1999. If the skid continues at Texas, it will move to Kansas -- the site of Hendrick's most recent victory, behind Johnson in last year's Chase.
"It's on all of our minds. It's pressure. We know that Rick doesn't come to every single race, and right now he's coming to every race, because he doesn't want to miss that 200th, and none of us want him to," Gordon said.
"We'll keep digging, we'll keep trying. And we know it's going to happen -- I mean, our teams are just too good, and we're running too good. We know it's going to happen, it's just when. It would be nice to kind of get that one out of the way, because it is somewhat becoming this heavy load that we're carrying."
A heavy load of 200th victory hats. "We want those hats to get used," Gordon said, "and then be sold for charity or something."