Rick Hendrick can remember the last time two of his drivers raced down to the wire for a championship and the anguish it caused him.
Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon were locked in a tight battle during the 1996 season, and Hendrick had to navigate the politics of supporting both without showing favoritism.
“I think it put me in a knot more than it did them,” the team owner said.
He better brace himself for a lot more angst.
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Gordon and current Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson open the Chase for the championship this Sunday at New Hampshire as the favorites to win the Nextel Cup title. Johnson is seeded first and Gordon second in the Chase standings after they dominated the “regular season” with a combined 10 victories in 26 races.
Although they raced each other for the championship in 2004 – both lost to Kurt Busch in the closest finish in NASCAR history – they didn’t have the same pressures that are following them this year. Because of their steady performances all season, Johnson, the defending series champion, and Gordon, a four-time champion, are expected to battle each other for the title.
Johnson hopes it happens.
“I think that would be good for the sport and I think it would be good for me and Jeff both,” he said.
“But I would love to see it end with me winning the championship and him finishing second. It would certainly elevate my status – beating ‘four-time’ in a heads-up battle for the championship would help me a lot.”
Hendrick believes his star drivers are heading into what could be an intense, 10-week battle.
“I think it’s going to be a war,” he said.
“I just hope they will use good judgment and not do anything stupid that ruins things for both of them. It’s hard to race, though, and not make a mistake sometimes. And I’d like to think we won’t, not with the way both of them are running.”
Hendrick actually has three title contenders, with Kyle Busch starting the Chase in ninth. Busch can’t be counted out, but his impending switch to Joe Gibbs Racing to drive a Toyota next season makes him a dark horse, at best.
Unlike last year when Brian Vickers was persona non grata at Hendrick team meetings after he signed with a new team, Busch is still invited to the powwows. But if a title is on the line, it wouldn’t be unheard of if Johnson and Gordon started locking him out.
These are the issues Hendrick must deal with during what’s expected to be the best Chase yet, and his experience from Labonte’s victory over Gordon 11 years ago just might come in handy.
Then again, he might be the only one struggling to deal with the stress.
“When Terry and Jeff were going to the finale that year, I had a meeting with both teams and I said ‘One of you guys is going to win this thing and someone is going to be second. I am telling you right now that I am going to be in a neutral spot and when it’s over, I am going to the loser first,”’ Hendrick said.
“I told them I would be with the guy who finished second, and they told me ’Hey, you are sweating this a whole lot more than we are. Everything is going to be cool.’
“I really hope this year is going to be the same way.”
Chances are, Johnson and Gordon can handle the rivalry. The two have been close friends since before Johnson’s 2002 rookie season – they vacation together, and Gordon served in Johnson’s wedding party – and it was Gordon who helped Johnson land his Hendrick ride.
But the mentoring relationship changed when Johnson began beating Gordon, and the four-time champion often had to turn to his protege for help in jump-starting his program.
Yes, they are teammates committed to strengthening the Hendrick organization. But they are also rivals, and neither wants to lose.
“Jimmie has been putting the pressure on me for the last four or five years,” Gordon said.
“Right now the momentum is on his side. We know that team is going to step it up when we get in the Chase, they always do.
“But we are excited about what we are going to be able to do because we step it up in the Chase as well. There are 10 other guys out there that are going to come in fired up and ready to do the same thing.”
Should it get out of hand, Johnson knows Hendrick will get his drivers back in line. The two have had minor incidents before and memorable on-track battles, including a race to the finish at Martinsville in April when Gordon used Johnson’s notes to beat him.
Hendrick didn’t allow any resentment then, and he won’t going forward.
“Rick does an awesome job of helping us all see the big picture,” Johnson said.
“Jeff is largely responsible for where Hendrick is today, and he’s not going to let anything get between us. We’ve had heated moments on the track where we thought we’d been unfair to one another and different things went on – and it’s not like it’s this blissful experience all the time.
“We have our problems, and we man-up and talk about them. You hate losing, but I guess it’s ingrained in our minds that as long as it’s a teammate, it’s OK.”