KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s turned into the joke that nobody can really laugh about, the cloud hanging over one of the most successful teams in the history of NASCAR.
Thirteen races have passed since Hendrick Motorsports reached Victory Lane, the longest drought the team has experienced since the 2002-03 seasons. And the result is that Hendrick is still stuck on 199 victories, the milestone maddeningly just out of reach.
“You know, now it’s turned. We’ve been so close to getting it the last month or so, it’s kind of a deal now where we’re joking, like, let’s not even think about it,” said five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who claimed the team’s last victory in October at Kansas Speedway.
The series is back this weekend for the first of two races this year.
It should give the powerhouse team some positive vibes.
Johnson also won from the pole at Kansas in 2008, and Jeff Gordon won the first two races at the track in 2001 and ’02. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has five top-10 finishes on the 1½-mile oval and is currently third in points, while Kasey Kahne is coming off a Trucks series win at Rockingham.
No owner has more wins at Kansas Speedway than Hendrick.
“We know our teams are all capable of winning races. We’ve all been there,” Johnson said Friday. “Whenever it happens, you’ll see a very big sigh of relief from Rick and the team.”
It’s not as though Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t been competitive.
To the contrary: It has been frustratingly close.
Hendrick’s stable has finished second four times since Johnson’s victory during last season’s Chase, including his second-place run last Saturday night at Texas.
Johnson led a race-high 156 laps, but a couple of subtle tweaks on his final two pit stops turned out for the worst. Greg Biffle passed him for the lead with 30 laps left, and the two-time winner at Kansas held on for his first Sprint Cup victory since October 2010.
“When you lead the most laps and finish second, those stink,” Johnson said. “Last weekend I thought long and hard about the last two pit stops and the adjustments we made. We still had a fast race car, but those last two segments weren’t the strongest.”
Johnson had another fast car a few weeks ago at Martinsville, and was leading late in the race. David Reutimann’s car stalled and brought out a caution, and then a wreck collected Johnson and Gordon, preventing them from making a run at the green-white-checkered finish.
“We’re real happy with the way our cars perform come race time,” Johnson said. “Qualifying has been a bit of a struggle, though last weekend we had a top 10, which wasn’t too bad.”
Johnson is confident that Hendrick Motorsports will finally get a win.
This is a team, after all, that won five straight championships with Johnson, and had claimed five more before that between Gordon and Terry Labonte, who won the title in 1996.
Johnson and Gordon combined for five wins last season, and Johnson won six alone in 2010.
The last time the team went through such doldrums, Johnson was running his first full Cup schedule. The team went 15 straight races without a victory that time, a stretch that began — in a cruel coincidence — after Gordon won the 2002 race at Kansas Speedway.
Then again, the very notion that folks are talking about 13 races being a drought says a lot about Hendrick Motorsports, where success is measured at a different level than most places.
“You take the 48 and the 24 and you look at their success — obviously that success is throughout the whole organization — but those two teams having that much success and winning that many championships proves what you have is working well,” Gordon said.
Gordon talked about the team reaching the 200-win milestone as if it’s a given, something bound to happen eventually. He’d just rather it happen sooner than another six months.
“We look at it a lot different,” he said. “I feel like Jimmie had a chance to win the race last week, three of us had a chance the race before. The opportunities are there. We’re running very good. We continue that we’ll, get the win.”
If nothing else, Hendrick Motorsports will celebrate one accomplishment this weekend: The team will start its 3,000th race dating to Geoff Bodine’s appearance in the 1984 Daytona 500.
“If you can win such a majority, I think it says a lot about your ability to put people in the right places,” Earnhardt said. “I’m sure there are other things that play a role in that over the years, but I guess it comes down to Rick’s eye for talent.”