On Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut fell off the rails.
That wasn’t supposed to happen. Three weeks ago at Indianapolis, Jimmie Johnson unveiled the dazzling speed that made him a runaway winner at the Brickyard. Each previous time Johnson had won at Indy — in 2006, 2008 and 2009 — he went on to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. So check that box.
A week later at Pocono, Jeff Gordon got a gift-wrapped victory in a rain-shortened race, and the talk was that the four Hendrick drivers would achieve the declaration of success team owner Rick Hendrick set forth in January — namely that all four of his drivers would qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
After Pocono, where Gordon slipped into the second provisional wild-card berth, that box was all but checked, too.
Fate stepped in at Watkins Glen, where Gordon spun in oil in the final corner and lost 14 positions on the final lap. At the same moment, he fell behind both Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch in the wild-card standings.
A temporary setback? Perhaps. But Michigan delivered the coup de grace. In fact, the race delivered a succession of anomalies that aren’t supposed to happen at Hendrick Motorsports.
We don’t expect Jeff Gordon to call out — and cuss out — a teammate on a radio channel that’s open to any competitor, reporter or fan who cares to listen. But that’s what Gordon did, after Dale Earnhardt Jr. made what Gordon considered an overly aggressive move on a restart before the midpoint of Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400.
We don’t expect master strategist Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, to be bamboozled by an unexpected move by another team, but that’s what happened at Michigan. Somehow, some way, Brad Keselowski gained nearly five seconds — and took the lead from Johnson — during an exchange of green-flag pit stops late in the race.
At first, Knaus was unaware that that Keselowski would be the leader when the round of pit stops cycled through. Then he was at a loss to explain it to his driver.
“I don’t know how they pulled that off, but they did a damn good job,” Knaus radioed to Johnson.
Knaus unable to figure something out AND admitting it? That’s an unprecedented two-fer.
We don’t expect Hendrick engines to fail, and certainly not in multiples, but that’s what happened at Michigan. Johnson’s engine exploded with five laps left and his No. 48 car in the lead. Gordon’s engine also failed, rendering moot his tiff with Earnhardt. So did the powerplant of Tony Stewart, a Hendrick customer.
Should they worry? Probably not. As Rusty Wallace aptly pointed out on Sunday’s ESPN broadcast, there’s no track on the Cup circuit that’s more taxing to the valvetrain than newly repaved Michigan, where drivers run lap after lap at the top end of the power band.
We don’t expect Jimmie Johnson to walk away from disappointment without talking to reporters, but that’s what happened on Sunday. Johnson had every reason to be chagrined. Michigan is rapidly becoming his Waterloo — what the Daytona 500 was to Dale Earnhardt Sr. until 1998, what the PGA championship was to Arnold Palmer throughout his career.
For the third time in recent memory, Johnson could taste victory at a track he’s never conquered, only to have it snatched away — this time by an imploding engine, not by a fuel shortage, as has happened in the past.
But too aggravated to talk to the press? That’s uncharacteristic of the five-time champion, and it suggests a heretofore unsuspected fragility within the massive, monolithic framework that is Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon’s short fuse with Earnhardt suggests the same thing.
Johnson may well win his sixth title this year. Gordon may well qualify for the Chase, however unlikely that prospect may be at this point.
After Pocono, we were ready to anoint Johnson as the title favorite and Gordon as a likely Chaser.
After Michigan, we assume nothing.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author