Prior to Jimmie Johnson’s win in the Bojangles’ Southern 500 on May 12, it seemed Hendrick Motorsports would never get that elusive 200th Cup win. Its 16-race slide in between wins was relative in NASCAR terms, but for an organization lugging around tractor trailer loads of “200 Wins” caps and assorted other merchandise, it was time to hit the milestone and move on.
It turns out, moving on is just what Hendrick Motorsports has done.
Johnson once again led the HMS charge on Saturday, becoming only the third driver to have earned three All-Star Race victories with a dazzling performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The No. 48 team’s strategy, flawless execution and pure speed harkened back to a time when it was all but unbeatable at the track then known as Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
Over a scintillating four-year period from 2003-06, the group led by crew chief Chad Knaus won five points-paying races, finished second twice and third once. It also recorded two All-Star wins (2003, ’06), to boot.
In Saturday’s exhibition race, Johnson and Knaus were not only the fastest, but the smartest, in a 23-car field. Having won Friday’s Pit Crew Challenge, the 48 team was awarded the final stall on pit road — the preferred choice. They easily won the first of the five-segment event, then dropped to the rear of the field for the proceeding three 20-lap runs, guaranteed of the first-place spot when the field stopped for a mandatory visit prior to a final 10-lap dash.
Johnson’s stop-and-go pit appearance allowed him to retain the lead, and from there it was only a matter of mashing the gas on the restart — which he did when second-place Matt Kenseth spun his tires. From there, he cruised to a .841-second victory.
“If you won the first segment, it was very easy what you could do,” Johnson said of the strategy. “There was just as much importance — not as much, but very close — amount of importance to win the second (segment). We felt like the winner would come out of the front row (on the 10-lap shootout), unless these guys got crazy and crashed or something.
“To make your odds work in your favor, being on that front row is key. First or second segment was the goal to win.”
Knaus echoed the thought.
“The biggest thing you have to do in any event is you have to limit your risk,” the crew chief noted. “That’s what we needed to do. We were fortunate that (Jimmie) was able to get out there that first segment and attack and get the win. From that point on, all you want to do is maintain and make sure you’re there at the end.”
Another Hendrick team, the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr., also enjoyed a successful night. Earnhardt won the Sprint Showdown, a transfer race for those not already qualified for the All-Star Race. He then won the fourth 20-lap segment before settling for fifth in the feature.
“I think we showed what we are capable of doing here next weekend,” Earnhardt said of the Coca-Cola 600, also held in Charlotte. “We are probably going to bring the same car. We have a couple of ideas on how to make the car even faster, especially for qualifying, that I hope will work out. I am real pleased with our effort.”
Hendrick will look for his 10th win in that race, a contest of endurance that is considered one of NASCAR’s crown jewel events.
“I think track position at the end of the 600 is going to be key,” Johnson said. “Two or three pit stops from the end, being in the right position, having the right strategy — if it’s fuel, two tires, four, none, whatever it might be — that’s going to be key.”
If Saturday’s race proved anything, it was that strategy was key. If that indeed is what it comes down to once again, figure Johnson, Knaus and the 48 team as the overwhelming favorite.
by Matt Taliaferro
Follow Matt on Twitter:@MattTaliaferro