For several months, NASCAR fans have been watching the Hendrick Motorsports team, wondering if one of the drivers would break through and deliver the famous racing outfit its 200th win in the Sprint Cup Series. On Saturday night at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, Jimmie Johnson was finally the man to do it.
Johnson is often thought of as one of the best drivers of all time - and he has five Sprint Cup titles to prove it. However, the racer has been in poor form lately, going sixteen straight races without a win. That may not sound like much for other drivers - Johnson's Hendrick teammate, Dale Earnahrdt Jr., has gone 130 races without a victory - but it's different for Johnson, who fans are used to seeing in victory lane on a regular basis.
This year has been all the more agonizing for the Hendrick team, as they entered the year with 199 wins, just one shy of the milestone. The last win came on October 9th, 2011, when Johnson beat Kasey Kahne to the finish at Kansas Speedway, reports NASCAR Wire Service. The team also came close to picking up the win several times this year - most notably in Martinsville, when Johnson, Earnhardt and fellow Hendrick racer Jeff Gordon were in first, second and third with just a few laps to go. Then a late caution threw the track into chaos and none of the riders walked away with #200.
Johnson excised that demon Saturday night when he won the Bojangles' Southern 500 at Darlington. The Southern 500 has a reputation for being a wild race, but the competition actually went 172 laps before the first caution. Johnson fought his way to the front, then pitted for a final time on lap 299.
With 69 laps to go, Johnson wasn't so much racing the other drivers as he was racing his fuel tank. Pitting again wasn't an option, as he'd likely lose his position on the track. That led to tense moments for team owner Rick Hendrick, who reportedly left the pit box and paced back and forth by himself until he heard the good news.
"I had to get away," told the news suce. "They said that we were going to make it [on fuel], but I don't believe them, you know? Everything has happened backward for us. We've run so good this year and then had such bad luck."
While Gordon is the most successful Hendrick Motorsports driver with 85 wins, Johnson's success has been more recent. Of the 200 wins Hendrick has racked up over the years, Johnson has been personally responsible for 56, and has never raced for another team.
After giving Hendrick the good news, Johnson told the news source the team was far from done when it came to picking up Sprint Cup victories.
"You've got to love that man," Johnson said of his car owner. "He said, 'Two hundred is great, but let's go get 250.' So that tells you where his head is. I love it. Oh, man, what a day!"
It's been a long road for Hendrick Motorsports, which was started in 1984 on a shoestring budget. Hendrick got his first win that year, but it would be a long time before the team found consistent success. From 1995-1998, the team won four straight Sprint Cups, followed by another win in 2001. Then, Johnson rattled off five straight championships from 2006-2010 before surrendering the Sprint Cup to Tony Stewart last year.