By admin | October 26, 2008
By Richard Allen
The Pep Boys Auto 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway illustrated the dichotomy that has played out over much of the season for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson has spent most of the latter part of 2008 going forward while teammates Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon have not.
Johnson started from the pole as a result of qualifying being rained out. He immediately got out to an early lead and thus secured five championship bonus points. Then, during an early round of green flag pit stops he made a rare and seemingly critical error when he was caught speeding on pit road. The resulting drive thru penalty landed him a lap down and well back in the running order.
Rather than panic and do something to make the situation worse, the Chad Knaus crew patiently awaited their chance to get in position then receive the “Lucky Dog” to get themselves back on the lead lap.
Once back on the lead lap they again did not succumb to the temptation of making radical adjustments in an attempt to regain their lost ground all at once. Johnson simply worked his way back to the Top 10 by picking off one car at a time. All in all, it looked as if the #48 team was going to escape with minimal damage on a day in which they could have had a major chunk taken out of their points lead.
Then, when the time came to take bold action Knaus seized the opportunity and turned a race that had the makings of a disaster into what will probably wind up as a championship securing move.
A caution flew on lap 312 for debris on the track (and there was verified debris). Knaus called Johnson to pit road and had his crew give their Chevrolet four fresh tires. The race restarted with less than 10 laps to go which meant the restart was single file.
Johnson picked up where Knaus left off and charged through the field, making his all the way from 11th up to a second place finish. Johnson was indeed going forward at the checkered flag.
On the other hand, Johnson’s two high profile teammates at Hendrick Motorsports were not moving forward at the end of the race.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had what has become an all too familiar day for him. He started off running very well. He moved from his 9th starting position into the Top 5 early in the race. During the first 100 laps of the race there were times when he was not only the fastest car on the track, but he was the fastest car by far.
Then, the roller coaster ride that Junior has so often taken went into motion. He fell back into the field, then he recovered into the Top 5. Finally, he faded again as those who, like Johnson, had pitted for new tires during the last caution period moved forward.
Junior wound up with an 11th place finish.
Like Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon’s crew seemed unable to make the adjustments or the calls that would move their driver to the front. Gordon ran in the Top 5 at various stages of the race as well. Finally, however, he too dropped back at the finish.
Gordon managed a 9th place result and his 2008 winless streak remains intact.
In the end, one of Rick Hendrick’s high profile teams moved forward and nabbed a finish that did not seem possible earlier in the day while the other two teams fell back into finishes that had to feel at least a bit disappointing.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association. His weekly column appears in The Mountain Press every Wednesday.
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