ëSleeping giantí awakes
By Jenna Fryer
CHARLOTTE ó For the first seven races this season, a car not owned by Hendrick Motorsports went to Victory Lane.
All seven times, people wondered what was wrong with NASCARís best team.
In the eighth race, Jimmie Johnson shut everybody up.
With a gutsy call from crew chief Chad Knaus to not stop for gas when the rest of the leaders were too scared to stretch their fuel to the finish, the two-time defending series champion finally gave Hendrick his first win of the season Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway. It was the deepest into the season owner Rick Hendrick had gone without one of his cars winning since 2003, when Jeff Gordon won the ninth event of the year.
iWeíre back,î Johnson said from Victory Lane.
And thatís what every rival driver had been dreading.
As speculation mounted week after week as to what was wrong with the Hendrick cars, the rest of the field cautioned against writing them off. Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season and finished first and second in the final series standings.
The drivers who eat, drink and sleep racing knew the slow start to 2008 was a fluke and Hendrick would soon be a factor before.
iYou wake the sleeping giant,î warned Jeff Burton last month, itheyíre going to be hard to beat. Thereís no getting around that.î
Nor is there any getting around the record book, which indicates that if Hendrickís four teams are indeed back on their game, theyíll be very hard to beat over the next month of racing.
Following a week off for the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR heads to four tracks where Hendrick cars historically have been very, very successful with 46 career victories. Hendrick drivers have won 10 times at Talladega, nine times at Richmond, 12 times at Darlington and 15 times at Loweís Motor Speedway.
A year ago, Hendrick drivers went 7-for-7 at those four tracks.
But just as heís done since the celebration last season ended, Hendrick cautioned that nothing is automatic over the coming month.
iWe definitely have some tracks where weíve been successful, but thatís in the past,î Hendrick said. iWe canít sit back and rely on that to carry us through.î
Johnsonís win was certainly proof.
Winning at Phoenix, where Gordon scored a victory last April and Johnson won in November, should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it took strategy and luck for Johnson to get the No. 48 Chevrolet back to Victory Lane.
Although he led a race-high 120 laps, he had to stretch his gas to get to the checkered flag. Not every team was willing to risk it, including part-time driver Mark Martin, who was curiously called in for fuel while leading ó even though that team isnít racing for a championship.
Knaus, aggressive in his setups and his penchant for pushing NASCARís rule book to the limits, carried it over onto the race track for a rare gamble by the veteran crew chief. If Johnson could conserve his fuel, Knaus figured theyíd have just enough to make it the final 82 laps without a fill-up.
It was a nerve-racking decision, and Knaus had to coax Johnson around the track by lying about how large his lead was over Clint Bowyer. By telling him his lead was 20 seconds ó instead of the actual 10 or so seconds he was actually out front ó Knaus was able to convince his driver to go easy on the gas as the laps wound down.
It was a daring call for a team that has consistently raced for points since its 2002 inception, and it was set up earlier in the day when Knaus and car chief Ron Malec had a lengthy pre-race strategy session.
iWe were talking about Phoenix being one of those racetracks where we can potentially do something at the end of a race to take a chance to go for a win,î Knaus said. iWe felt like it was early enough in the season if we wanted to take a chance, try to make something happen, go for a win, we would be OK to eat the points right now and still make it into the top 12 with the remaining races before we get to the Chase.
iThat kind of set the tone. I didnít think it was going to show up quite like this. I was thinking two tires instead of four, something along those lines. But we were kind of prepared for it.î
In pulling it off, the team demonstrated some of the luck that carried it at times last season. Yes, Hendrick had the best cars last year and very talented drivers. But everyone readily acknowledges the team won a handful of races that appeared earmarked for other drivers, who through bad timing or bad luck coughed them up in the waning laps to a Hendrick driver.
iItís difficult to come off a season like we had last year and live up to all the hype and expectations. Itís not like we finished 2007 and said, ëOK, we won 18 races this year, so now weíve got to win 19,í î Hendrick said. iWe know we won some races last season we shouldnít have won, and we knew this year it would be near impossible to continue that pace.
iWe had a horseshoe and held onto it as long as we could. But I look at the stats and feel good about the season weíve had and the direction weíre headed. Weíll win our share.î