Rick Hendrick takes ride of his life
CONCORD, N.C. -- With fireworks blasting in the background, Chad Knaus looked out at the track from his pit box and said with a tone of disbelief, "Is he on the side of the race car?"
Jimmie Johnson, who was celebrating a victory in Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race, gave an affirmative that barely was audible through the laughter.
"Beautiful," his crew chief said.
Yes, it was.
There are moments in sports you remember for the rest of your life. Rick Hendrick, 62, riding down the frontstretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway with one leg inside Johnson's car and one leg out, his foot dragging on the ground at times, is one of them.
When you hear the sequence of events that led to what Hendrick called "the dumbest thing I've ever done in racing," it'll become even more memorable.
But that and Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning a segment of the main event after capturing the preliminary are about all that was memorable from this night. Johnson and Knaus made a sham of the new All-Star format, seizing control Thursday night and never looking back.
Yes, Thursday. That's when Johnson's team won the pit crew competition to give Knaus first choice of pit stall for the race.
That became even bigger when Johnson won the first of four 20-lap segments, ensuring he would be the first car on pit road for a mandatory stop before the final 10-lap shootout. It also allowed Johnson to sandbag for three segments, at times lying back what seemed like a county away on restarts to save his tires and his car.
When he took the green flag for the final segment, it was just a matter of getting ahead of the other three segment winners -- Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Earnhardt -- and using the clean air that is such a huge advantage to claim the $1,071,340 first-place money.
"It played out perfectly," Knaus said.
Said Johnson, "Everybody knew if you could win that first segment, you could control the night."
The only way Johnson wasn't going to win was if he was forced to drag his team owner around the final 10 laps.
"I'd probably give him nine out of 10," Keselowski said when asked how many times Johnson would have won under the above scenario.
Not that the outcome might have been different under another format. Remember, the win was Johnson's third in this non-points event, tying him with teammate Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt for the all-time lead.
He's pretty good at this.
And don't forget that Johnson started the first segment sixth and took only 15 laps to overtake pole sitter Kyle Busch for the lead.
"That's probably a good indication of the strength of his car," Keselowski said.
But the format the way it is gave Johnson a monumental edge. He knew it. Knaus knew it. That's why the two met three or four times after the drivers' meeting to rehash exactly what they wanted to do if Johnson won the first segment.
"It would be tough to knock the system after how our night went," Johnson said. "I had to believe in the system. I really think whoever won that first segment would have done the same thing."
After taking the checkered in the first segment, Johnson went into an all-out stall reminiscent of Dean Smith's four corners in college basketball. He was so far back at times that you thought he'd driven to nearby Bruton Smith Boulevard for a Starbucks latte while everybody else duked it out for a segment win.
He wasn't that far from being lapped when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the final segment to give fans hoping for a repeat of his 2000 victory in this event a brief thrill.
Earnhardt didn't have a chance. Nobody did after Johnson won the first segment, barring an engine failure or crash. Not in 10 laps with clean air.
I don't think it would have made a difference if it was a hundred laps at the end. Jimmie was just that fast.” -- Brad Keselowski
"I don't think it would have made a difference if it was a hundred laps at the end," Keselowski said. "Jimmie was just that fast."
Still, it doesn't feel right watching the fastest car on the track look like a start-and-park team for 60 consecutive laps. Drivers, as third-place Kenseth said, are programmed to go as fast as they can, be up on the edge for as long as they can without wrecking.
Johnson had to get on edge for only 10 laps after winning the first segment. He was more on edge trying to keep his boss from falling out of his window than he was during the second, third and fourth segments.
This is where, as advertised, it would get more memorable, what most sporting events really are all about.
After the race, Hendrick was so excited that he asked Johnson to pick him up to take him to get the checkered flag. When Hendrick got to the car, he thought twice, but Johnson wouldn't let him off the hook that easily.
So Hendrick threw his right leg inside the window. Before he could change his mind, his foot was pinned in between the wheel and Johnson's leg to the point that Johnson couldn't get to the clutch to change gears.
So Johnson grabbed Hendrick's leg with one arm and the wheel with his other hand, and took off to create one of the strangest and funniest scenes you'll ever see in this or any other sport.
Johnson was afraid that if he let off the gas, the car would start jerking and Hendrick would fall off, so he kept going until he could get to a good place to end the theatrics.
"That was just super stupid," Hendrick said, putting Johnson and Knaus into tears of laughter when talking about busting like a watermelon had he fallen off.
Nothing Johnson or Knaus did was stupid. They had the perfect plan to take advantage of a format that Hendrick fully expects NASCAR to change again before next year.
They might be close to becoming the perfect team that they were in winning five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010. Since wrecking on the start of the second lap of the Daytona 500, they have rolled off eight top-10s in 10 points races. They handed Hendrick his 200th career Cup win a week ago at Darlington.
They have to be considered the favorite entering next weekend's Coca-Cola 600.
They could be on their way to turning Saturday's memorable moment into another memorable season.
Johnson's confidence is so high that it might not matter what format you throw at him. He talked of tying Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for championships with seven, of "wanting to win eight."
"I want to leave my mark on this sport when I leave," Johnson said.
On Saturday, Johnson left his mark on the All-Star Race with one of the most memorable moments you'll ever see.
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