"I can't believe we've won 200 of these things," said Hendrick. "I can't believe it took this long after 199. We've run so good this year and had such bad luck."
"We've been awfully close to winning the 200th for the last month or two,” agreed Johnson in a Victory Lane packed with members of Hendrick’s four Sprint Cup Series teams, plus dozens of friends, family members and well-wishers. “I'm just happy to be able to close the deal.
"My mind goes back to the early days of Hendrick Motorsports," he said, "and the people who won those early races and worked on the early cars. I think of (original crew chief) Harry Hyde, Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine (who drove a Hendrick-owned Chevrolet to the team’s first win at Martinsville Speedway in 1985), Kenny Schrader and a lot of people over the years who put a lot of time and effort into this organization."
|Bodine started it all in 1985|
Bodine’s 1985 Martinsville win allowed Hendrick to secure his first sponsor – Northwestern Mutual Life – for the team then known as All-Star Racing. Had Bodine not claimed the checkered flag , the team would have closed its doors the following day. Instead, Hendrick Motorsports has now claimed at least one Sprint Cup Series win in each of the last 28 seasons.
Martinsville Speedway is also the site of Hendrick’s darkest day in the sport. The team owner lost son Ricky, brother John and eight other family members and friends when a team aircraft slammed into the side of Bull Mountain in foggy conditions while en route to the Virginia short track on October 4, 2004.
It appeared Hendrick would claim his 200th career win in fairy tale fashion at Martinsville a few weeks ago, when Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., held top positions on a restart with less than five laps remaining. But a bizarre crash robbed the team of its expected victory, leaving its leader heartbroken once again.
"I thought we had it a few races back," said Hendrick Saturday night. "Martinsville was the one I thought would mean so much. With the first (win) and the accident there, it was special. But tonight I was thinking about Darlington, and how special this place is."
|Richmond was a nine-time HMS winner|
Hendrick now trails only the legendary Petty Enterprises in all-time Sprint Cup Series wins, and while Petty’s 268-victory milestone is secure for now, the Hendrick juggernaut shows no sign of slowing its roll. The team has won at 25 different racetracks over the years, and since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, no Sprint Cup operation has more wins, Top-5 finishes (818), Top-10 finishes (1,352) or poles (181) than HMS.
The team has celebrated Sprint Cup Series wins with 15 different drivers. Gordon leads the way with 85 career victories, followed by Johnson (56), Terry Labonte (12), Richmond (9), Darrell Waltrip (9), Bodine (7), Mark Martin (5), Kyle Busch (4), Ricky Rudd (4) and Ken Schrader (4). Earnhardt Jr., Casey Mears, Jerry Nadeau, Joe Nemechek and Brian Vickers have each contributed a single victory to the 200-win total.
|Waltrip scored a Daytona 500|
“I’m happy to have contributed in some small way to that 200 wins,” said Busch, whose parting from HMS at the end of 2007 was less than seamless. “Rick Hendrick is a tremendous team owner and a great man, and I’m proud to have been able to race for him.”
Uncharacteristically content with a third-place Darlington finish, Stewart smiled from the shadows while Johnson celebrated his race-high 134 laps led. "To win a 200th race, you don't want to back into the win," said the three-time Sprint Cup champ. "They dominated it and took it the way they should."
As the midnight hour came and went, Johnson’s team performance the requisite post-race “Hat Dance,” shuffling through a variety of hats adorned with various sponsor logos. Team members repeatedly turned their hats backward in memory of Ricky Hendrick, pointing to the heavens as if to share the moment with their fallen comrade.
|Gordon leads with 85 wins.|
There’s plenty of work still to do, but Hendrick took time early Sunday morning to recall the day he snuck into Darlington Raceway to watch the final laps of the 1976 Southern 500.
“I had (that) little Chevy dealership over in Bennettsville," he recalled. "My wife and I, about a third of the way through the race, drove into the track and pulled up behind the stands’ (We) didn't buy a ticket, (just) parked the car, walked up into the stands and watched the race. I don't know how we did that.
“It's been a lot of years since then."