Missed opportunity for Hendrick boys
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Rick Hendrick was in Victory Lane on Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway, confetti flying all around him, his clothes drenched with some sort of adult beverage.
This is where the owner of Hendrick Motorsports expected to be at the beginning of the season after predicting all four of his Sprint Cup drivers would make the Chase, and that one would win the championship.
This is where he expected -- or at least hoped -- to be at the beginning of Sunday, celebrating his 11th championship as Jimmie Johnson celebrated his sixth.
Instead, Hendrick was celebrating a first Homestead win with Jeff Gordon as Johnson explained in the media center how he let the title get away, as Brad Keselowski celebrated his first championship with the biggest Miller Lite beer glass in history.
Talk about mixed emotions.
"Yeah, it's disappointing," Hendrick said. "But at the same time, it's racing. I'm celebrating [Gordon's win] and letting the other deal go."
He's learned that from years of experience.
But Johnson was right. The pressure of the Chase does eventually get to somebody, as he preached over and over to Keselowski this week in South Florida. Whether it's the driver or crew chief or a pit crew member, it ultimately gets to somebody.
Much to the disbelief of Johnson and most in the sport, it was his team that made the critical mistake that left Hendrick and many in the organization with mixed emotions.
Just when it appeared Johnson was in position to make a run for the title with 54 laps remaining, just when he and crew chief Chad Knaus seemingly had made all the right calls to overcome a 20-point deficit, NASCAR ordered the No. 48 to come down pit road a second time because of a missing lug nut.
At the time, Johnson was using the same pit and fuel strategy Gordon used to win the race. At the time, Johnson was ahead of Gordon in the race and ahead of Keselowski in the points.
If all played out as hoped, Keselowski would have to make one more stop for fuel while Johnson was good to go.
Then it all unraveled.
And then it got worse. Johnson smelled oil, usually a sign a car around him was having issues. It was from his car. Something broke. He wasn't sure if the lug nut popped up and broke an oil line or what, but when the car began to shake he knew it was fatal.
So Hendrick was left to celebrate a win with Gordon while Johnson explained how he wasn't able to fulfill his boss' prophesy.
"It sucks to be close and not get it," Johnson said.
This was a reminder of just how difficult that will be.
Gordon is a reminder, too. He won three titles during a four-year period from 1995 to 1998 and seemed destined to catch Earnhardt and Petty. He won another in 2001. He hasn't won another since.
This is not to suggest Johnson won't get another or reach eight. He is a blown tire at Phoenix and perhaps a loose lug nut at Homestead from being the champion this year.
Instead, he finished third in the standings, one point behind Clint Bowyer, who could have been in a position to challenge for the title were it not for Gordon intentionally wrecking him in the final laps last week.
"I just really wanted to catch the 24 [Gordon], that was the only what-if that went through my mind at the end," Bowyer said after finishing second in the race. "Probably went through your mind, too.
"What the hell are we doing talking what-ifs? It's over. We could have done what-ifs last week. I'm done with what-ifs."
He was smiling big as he replaced Johnson on the podium in the infield media center. Finishing second in points was a huge accomplishment in his first season for a young Michael Waltrip Racing team.
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Gordon was smiling, too, happy to put the frustrations of the past week with Bowyer behind him and end the season with momentum for next year.
"Like our whole season wrapped up in one week," Gordon said. "You can try all you want to try and move past a moment, but man, it just ate me up all week.
"It meant the world to me to have Rick stand by my side, not just in the media center all week. That's what's so special, was to go into Victory Lane."
But this appeared to be Johnson's year until the blown tire at Phoenix turned a seven-point advantage into a 20-point deficit. It appeared to be Johnson's night until the lug nut and whatever caused a pinhole in the driveline took it away.
"Yeah, we were in position and putting the pressure on the 2 car like we needed to," Johnson said. "I said at the beginning of the week 15th isn't a layup, and I certainly had him in position."
When Johnson came to pit road for the drive-through penalty, Keselowski was a lap down in 23rd. His goal of finishing at least 15th to guarantee the title no matter what Johnson did was in jeopardy. You could hear the nervousness in Keselowski's voice as he repeatedly asked crew chief Paul Wolfe about saving fuel.
If the race stayed green, and Johnson's strategy played out like it did for Gordon, it might have been the greatest last-race comeback in NASCAR history.
And nobody would have been surprised.
This was Johnson, the man dubbed "Superman" by Mark Martin. We've seen him overcome the odds more times than not.
The last team you expected to make a mistake was this one.
That and the fact he was in position to win it all left Johnson as disappointed as he's ever appeared after a race. It stung even more when he was initially told Keselowski finished 21st.
"[I] about lost my lunch when I heard that," Johnson said.
Then he discovered Keselowski was 15th and said, "Well, it would have been interesting."
It would have been. We may have been talking about Johnson achieving the seemingly unachievable goal of tying Petty and Earnhardt for championships next season instead of wondering whether Keselowski will be sober enough to make his own victory party in South Beach.
"You know, to be close, it just sucks to be close and not get it," Johnson said. "The statement that I made about the eight championships is on that big wish list. The reality of that isn't something that motivates me, and I'm not focused on it or think about that number.
"But I'm just disappointed that we came so close. We had 80 percent of the Chase that we wanted to have, a ton of momentum late in the season, and then those final two races bit us."
He'll be back, though. That team is too strong.
And Hendrick Motorsports likely will be strong enough next season with the new car that the owner will be able to predict all four drivers will make the Chase again.
He might be bold enough to predict one will win the title.
"That's just racing," Hendrick said as he explained the mixed emotions of Sunday. "If you let that destroy you, you'll never be able to win again."
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