|ESPN.com: WinstonCup||[Print without images]|
It's not that Johnson isn't an extraordinary talent. It was just that Hendrick fans spent so long wondering why Jeff Gordon could be so dominant while the remainder of the stable struggled. Outside of Terry Labonte's championship season of 1996, there wasn't much success for Hendrick outside the No. 24 team. Until Johnson came along in a new addition to the stable, the No. 48, and raised the expectations everyone has for the Nos. 5 and 25.
Brian Vickers, driver of the No. 25 Hendrick Chevy, felt those expectations. But he doesn't equate it to pressure. He believes it's support. Support that will help hold him up as a contender on the Cup level. Vickers leapt from 28th to 17th in the standings over the second half of last year and believes that has given the team confidence to come out with guns blazing this year.
"The organization is behind me 100 percent," he said. "They know I can get the job done. Just take your time and, when the time is right, it will happen."
The time appeared right for Vickers after a solid Daytona finish of seventh. It was just one race out of 36, and the finish took about an hour to sort out because of a late crash that diced things up. Still, none of that dampened Vickers' spirits.
"Momentum is so important, and to be able to come out of the gate with it is nice," he said, sporting a smile that would take hours to wipe off. "It was a great run for us. It was the best I've ever done in the race and the best Daytona 500 finish for the No. 25 team in several years. Of course we wanted to win, but it was still a good day."
Vickers immediately was hit with questions about whether the strong start was an anomaly in what would be another mediocre campaign. Although the questions burned a little, Vickers' result the next week at California Speedway didn't help. He started 28th and finished 18th. It wasn't a horrendous day; indeed, he only slipped two spots in the standings, to ninth. But many believe the real season begins at California because Daytona adds too many incalculable variables with the draft and plate rules, and getting off to an 18th-place start surely isn't as confidence boosting as seventh. He followed California by finishing 22nd at Las Vegas after starting 10th. That finish dropped him another three spots in the standings, down to 12th.
Still, Vickers is adamant that Daytona was no fluke. With his fair share of breaks, he hopes to at least contend for a spot in the Chase for the Championship playoff field.
"The chemistry is there," he said. "It just feels like [the team] is headed in the right direction."
Even the California result wasn't enough to put a damper the team's spirits. Sure, the result was low, but the performance was high. Vickers was hit with a speeding penalty early in the event. A mental mistake for which he accepted blame. But after that, his was one of the stronger cars in the field -- it was just mired too deeply in the pack to break through and finish where it belonged.
"My speeding penalty didn't help and prevented us from getting a better result," he said, "but I was encouraged by how [crew chief] Lance [McGrew] and the guys on the team made the right adjustments during the race. From probably the halfway point on, even though we were still fighting to get back on the lead lap, we were running times very close to the leader, sometimes even faster."
The team said it had a good test at Vegas back in January. The speed was lacking, but the team learned a lot. With the communication and race-day adjustments having gone so well in two races this year, building on the momentum from late last season, confidence abounds.
"I think we can always improve; everybody can, no matter what they do," he said. "But if we can continue or slightly improve from where we were [at the end of last year], we will be up where we want and need to be. There are races we should have won but we didn't. There was a streak of races -- I don't know the exact count -- where we were earning the second most points of anyone out there during the time when Tony [Stewart] was clicking off one win after another.
"That doesn't happen very often, so if you put that aside, we were doing awesome. If we continue that, it would be pretty good. We need to keep that up and still constantly try to improve."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.