Jimmie Johnson had never run so poorly, not in any race in his six previous seasons and certainly not at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he’d won three-straight races.
Johnson’s sluggish 29th-place finish Sunday came right before team owner Rick Hendrick addressed thousands of store managers at the national sales meeting for Lowe’s, Johnson’s corporate sponsor.
“I told them they had pretty good timing,” Hendrick quipped. “To see that team run that way, they had just witnessed history.”
It was rather unusual for the two-time defending Sprint Cup champion to have such a bad day, but it certainly wasn’t history-making. Still, as Johnson failed to contend for a fourth consecutive win in the desert, many in NASCAR began to wonder what’s wrong with mighty Hendrick Motorsports.
The team that couldn’t be beat last season is now winless through the first three events of this year. That has sent a buzz through the garage that even Hendrick has heard.
“I’m actually kind of glad everybody thinks we are in trouble,” the team owner said. “It gives us an opportunity to focus on what we need to do to start winning races.”
It seems rather preposterous to call Hendrick’s start to the season a slump.
After all, all four of his cars have run up front at one point or another and it was just last month that they appeared poised to race each other for the Daytona 500 victory.
But aside from victories by newcomer Dale Earnhardt Jr. in two non-points events at Daytona, the cars have failed to find their way to Victory Lane. Most teams would trade anything for the way Hendrick Motorsports has performed this season, but when a team is used to winning everything in sight, the slightest struggles can send a shock wave through the garage.
“I think there’s a lot of hype,” said Jeff Gordon, Hendrick’s four-time series champion.
“There’s a lot of expectations put on Hendrick this year, from bringing Junior into the mix. Jimmie had back-to-back championships and we finished second (in the points).
“I feel like it’s just a matter of time before we can win. It’s a good problem to have, people asking you how come you haven’t won yet. That means that they expect it, and so do we.”
Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season, put three cars in the Chase and finished first, second and fifth in the final standings.
This season, Earnhardt Jr. is the highest of the Hendrick drivers. With two top-10 finishes – and the Daytona exhibition victories – he’s ranked 10th in the standings.
Johnson, who was wrecked out of the Daytona 500 after starting from the pole and had the poor Las Vegas run, is 14th. Gordon, who has two DNFs this season, is 22nd in the standings. And Casey Mears, a victim of the wet track in California two weeks ago, is 34th.
But Hendrick argues those stats don’t paint an accurate picture.
His drivers have led 198 of 717 laps this season, including a dominating performance by Johnson and Gordon at California in which they combined to lead 144 of the 250 laps. Although Carl Edwards won the race, Johnson and Gordon were second and third.
And Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon were both running up front at Las Vegas. Gordon crashed on a restart, and Earnhardt Jr. settled for second after cold tires prevented him from chasing down Edwards on a restart two laps from the end.
Overall, Hendrick has had a pretty decent start with at least one top-10 finish in all 2008 points-paying and non-points events, including runner-up efforts in the last two races.
“I’m just tickled with where we are – we’re real competitive every week, with all the cars,” Hendrick said.
“If you had asked me (in January) if you could win the first two (non-points) races of the year with Junior, sit on the pole at Daytona and run strong every week, I would have said ‘Hell yeah.' "
Truth of the matter is, Hendrick never expected to duplicate the magical 2007 season. He recognized those 18 victories had as much to do with luck as they did hard work and performance, and he readily admits rivals Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. should have claimed some of those wins.
But by being in the right place when other competitors faltered, Hendrick drivers always seemed to capitalize. The owner knew luck like that couldn’t last forever.
“We had great racer’s luck, and we were not as good as we looked last year. I promise you, we were not that much better than everybody else,” Hendrick said.
“But we also are not as bad as we look right now. Nobody is ever going to win that many races every year. Nobody. And we knew that going in.”
The key now, though, is getting his cars into Victory Lane. He’s thrilled with Earnhardt Jr.’s debut, and credits crew chief Tony Eury Jr.’s early arrival at Hendrick last fall with preparing the No. 88 for a strong start to the season.
It’s got him in Chase contention, and even though it’s early, the driver who missed it two of the past three seasons is focused on staying in the top 12.
“I’m going to run hard and try to win races, but I’m really watching that top-12 hard,” he said.
“I’ve waited and been lackadaisical, ‘We’ll get around to it, we’ll put some runs together to get in there.’ I’m not going to do that this year. I’m going to concentrate on every lap.”
And Hendrick isn’t concerned with Mears’ slow start. Mears was with the leaders late at Daytona before a mistake caused him to wreck. He slid in water at rainy California, then rebounded with an 11th-place finish in Vegas. Hendrick has faith crew chief Alan Gustafson will have the team turned around in no time.
“If I have to have a guy who can get a team going, it’s Alan,” Hendrick said. “Alan is like a Marine, you are not going to rattle him. He’s going to get the team rolling.”
Hendrick points to rare mechanical failures for Gordon, and just a bizarre off day in Vegas for Johnson. Those two drivers aren’t likely to be plagued by those failures often, and Hendrick expects to see a slow climb back to the front of the standings.
“Everybody said we were the Yankees, we couldn’t be beat, we were so much better than everybody else,” Hendrick said.
“Now if you come to me in July and ask why we haven’t won a race, I might be ready to get the knife out.
“But right now, we’re actually real comfortable with our start.”