Hendrick Heads The Pack

You have to pity Rick Hendrick. Instead of having one team in the NASCAR Winston Cup championship hunt to worry over, Hendrick has two.

Yeah, poor, poor Rick Hendrick. He’s got rookie Jimmie Johnson in the points lead, with four-time champion Jeff Gordon lurking in fourth place and coming off a dominant victory in the Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Boy, life is tough.

“To come out of here with the lead and to gain points is really good,” Hendrick said Sunday at Kansas. “It’s going to be a war to the end. There’s a bunch of good cars there and they’re running hard every week. Nobody can put it on cruise control. Everybody’s got to race as hard as they can every week. It’s anybody’s championship, I think.

“We’re just glad we’ve got two in the hunt, and hopefully we can have some good luck and one of them will get it. It’s going to be quite a contest between now and the end of the year because there are some really good tracks coming up for them.”

And it just might come down to Johnson and Gordon. Mark Martin, who led the points for two races, hasn’t exactly set the world on fire this year and only has one victory. Tony Stewart, who is in third, has had a season any good roller-coaster designer would love.

But Johnson and Gordon – wow. Six victories, 15 Top 5s, 33 Top 10s, seven poles, first and fourth in the points standings. Martin and Roush Racing’s Matt Kenseth are close, but no two teammates have records that match the Hendrick Motorsports duo.

Gordon and Hendrick brought Johnson up from the Busch Series, and they look like geniuses now, don’t they? Johnson has been superb all season and shows no signs of slacking off.

Asked if he was going to advise Johnson or treat him as a competitor the rest of the year, Gordon chuckled.

“How am I supposed to advise a guy who’s been wearing me out all year long?” Gordon said. “There are some people that have it and some people that don’t. The guy has got it. There’s just something about it. When it’s crunch time, he knows how to get the win.

“What’s amazing to me with these young guys - especially Jimmie - is the head they’ve got on their shoulders. We’ve put him in great equipment, but there are a lot of guys out there in great equipment. He’s spectacular. It’s more than just his driving ability. It’s the way he thinks and how he handles himself.”

Gordon said he hasn’t noticed the pressure getting to Johnson, and he doesn’t want him thinking about it anyway. That’s good, Johnson said, because he’s not.

“It won’t be a worry until we get to the last couple of races,” Johnson said. There is just too much to worry about with Talladega and Martinsville.

“Who knows? It’s been a bad place to be leading the points these days. Everybody keeps having trouble. But hopefully we can take it and hang onto it.”

One thing Johnson won’t do is drive any differently now that he has the 11-point lead on Martin. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who said Sunday he didn’t know where they were in the points and didn’t care, wants to make sure of that.

“It doesn’t matter to us,” Knaus said. “We’re going out there and we’re trying to win the races. We’re not worried about leading the points. That’s the story that everybody else is talking about. All we’re talking about is going out and winning races.”

Gordon did that Sunday, and he needed one after two straight sub-par races. Gordon has won three of the last six Winston Cup events, but he didn’t finish two of the three races he didn’t win.

“I don’t know if we needed a win, but we needed a strong finish,” Gordon said. “We needed to gain some points. Obviously, we couldn’t ask for more than we got out of it today. It’s funny how things happen. Last week I thought this was not meant to be. And this week.....whew....we got ‘em. We’re on top of our game and we’ve got a shot at this thing.”

Gordon is 109 points behind Johnson, a deficit that can be made up in one race.

“These last seven races are going to be really interesting,” Gordon said. “We can’t focus on what other guys are doing – whether they’re doing something good or having trouble – all we can focus on is our own program. That’s how we’ve won championships in the past, and that’s how we’re going to win them in the future.

“It seems like we’re coming into our own here towards the end of the season where we’re getting better and that’s got me really pumped up and excited to go to each race. Talladega is kind of a wash because it’s a restrictor-plate deal. But we’re going to go get what we can out of there. And then when we go to Charlotte, we’re going to be on a mission. It’s going to be exciting.”

Johnson agreed with his teammate and boss.

“This championship is far from over,” Johnson said. “Jeff Gordon knows how to win these things, and it’s going to be a battle to he end.”

“I really don’t know what it’s going to take or who’s going to come out on top, but I do believe it’s going to come down to either the final race or at least right there at the end,” Gordon said. “Somebody has got to get some momentum. After we won those two back-to-back races I felt like momentum was on our side. We were 60 points out. I’m hoping we can start over and get back in that groove. All year long, nobody has really stood out.”

Maybe it’s time for the Hendrick Motorsports teammates to take charge. That would put a smile on Rick Hendrick’s face.

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