05/12/12 10:38AM Bojangles Southern 500, Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick

Hendrick could break win drought at Darlington

Pressure to get No. 200 weighs on team, which has nine victories at historic track

By Viv Bernstein, Special to NASCAR.COM
May 11, 2012 5:05 PM, EDT

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The question follows Hendrick Motorsports from week to week and race track to race track, no longer an affirmation of its success but a reminder of its struggle. When will that elusive 200th victory finally come?

It has been seven months and 16 races since Jimmie Johnson delivered win No. 199 to Rick Hendrick in October at Kansas Speedway, one short of the milestone that would, if nothing else, help quantify the dominance Hendrick Motorsports has displayed in NASCAR for most of its 25 years.

Bojangles' Southern 500

Practice 1

Pos. Driver Speed
1. Kevin Harvick 177.090
2. Greg Biffle 176.290
3. Kurt Busch 175.993
4. Carl Edwards 175.760
5. Tony Stewart 175.647
Practice 2

Pos. Driver Speed
1. AJ Allmendinger 175.022
2. Greg Biffle 174.730
3. Carl Edwards 174.099
4. Jimmie Johnson 174.087
5. Travis Kvapil 173.626

Speeds: Prac. 1 | Prac. 2

It was only a matter of time before No. 200 followed. At least, that's what was supposed to happen.

Except it never did. As the weeks tick off and the celebration gets put off again and again, a sense of inevitability has been replaced by some uncertainty.

"It certainly weighs on the team,'' Johnson said before Friday's practice for the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. "I'm not frustrated yet. I don't want to see opportunities slip away. I certainly want to get 200 behind us as does everyone at Hendrick Motorsports because it's lingering around."

There is reason to think it finally could happen at Darlington. Gordon has seven victories here, the last in 2007. Johnson has won twice as well, but also not since the famed egg-shaped oval was repaved before the 2008 race. Johnson was fourth in Happy Hour practice, behind leader AJ Allmendinger at 175.022 mph, points leader Greg Biffle (174.730) and Carl Edwards (174.099). Travis Kvapil was fifth (173.626).

The rest of the Hendrick contingent was lower on the Happy Hour charts, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. 18th, Kasey Kahne 22nd and Jeff Gordon 28th.

Past history and wins might not be the best measure for Hendrick going into Saturday night. Instead, it is recent history that is raising questions. Gordon arrived at Darlington 23rd in the standings and is struggling to remain in the conversation for a spot in the playoff Chase. Kasey Kahne is climbing back after being even deeper in the hole. Johnson had to recover from a disastrous Daytona 500, when he was collected in an early wreck, to get back into the hunt. He is coming off a 35th-place showing at Talladega Superspeedway when his engine failed. Hendrick, if nothing else, has been plain unlucky this season.

The only driver who has performed well consistently is Earnhardt, who has finished in the top 10 eight times, but he has gone 139 races without a win.

Right now, Earnhardt isn't worried about No. 200 or the struggles of Hendrick Motorsports.

"There's nothing wrong,'' he said. "I think we're looking at our performance over the same period and seeing an improvement. I think all four of our teams are faster than they were last year and running with a better competitive spirit than what we had last year. We're running better, Kasey's come in and been really fast -- superfast at several tracks. Jeff's had terrible luck. He's been probably as fast as Kasey if not one of the fastest of the four, and Jimmie's always right there. He's just one decision away from a win. We're getting pretty close ourselves, so I think attitudes are good and everybody feels like we're just right around the corner."

As for the rest of the garage? There probably isn't much sympathy for Hendrick these days.

"Yeah, I really feel bad for those guys,'' Matt Kenseth said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "They've only won five out of the last six championships. Those guys are really on a tough run. I hope they get it straightened out."

The End