MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The first time Rick Hendrick saw a NASCAR race was at Martinsville Speedway. He went to the half-mile track as a child with his father more than 40 years ago.
Hendrick not only continues to visit the oldest race track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule, he’s become a legendary fixture there.
When Jimmie Johnson won Sunday’s STP Gas Booster 500, Hendrick became the winningest car owner in the track’s 64-year history. His cars have won there 20 times, surpassing legendary Petty Enterprises in the process.
Geoff Bodine won the first race for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville in 1984. Johnson won No. 20 on Sunday.
“The first time I ever came to a Cup race was here with my dad,” Hendrick said. “We’ve been very fortunate to have some great drivers, and this track has been awful good to us.”
Of Hendrick’s 212 career wins as a car owner, 20 have come at Martinsville. Johnson has eight of them, while Jeff Gordon has seven. Darrell Waltrip added four wins for Hendrick, while Bodine completes the list.
Before Sunday’s race, Clint Bowyer was sure his car was faster than Johnson’s. Gordon felt the same way.
Both were surprised how wrong they were.
“I’m telling you, after the car that we had all weekend long the 48 won,” Bowyer said. “I really thought I was going to be battling him for the win after practice yesterday.”
Said Gordon: “I didn’t think anybody was going to battle you.”
Although he finished second, Bowyer still couldn’t figure out where Johnson found so much speed during the race.
“I don’t know. It’s Martinsville,” he said. “You never know. It’s so hard to practice preparing for the race. I was extremely good (Saturday), started the race way tight, and I was like, where did that come from?”
The answer: Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
Although they won the pole on Friday – and set the track record – some were lured into believing they wouldn’t be as fast during the 500-lap race. What they didn’t know was Johnson and Knaus came to their favorite track with a simple game plan Ð concentrate solely on Sunday’s race.
“Saturday is just a different day,” Johnson said. “We have very little laps on the track at that point. The truck race changes it, and then our race is so long the track continues to evolve and change. It’s kind of a moving target.
“I mean, it’s easy to start chasing things here and get yourself off track. We always race well, and fortunately here you pit a lot and you can make big changes to your race car to get you in the ballgame.
“We just executed from the first laps in practice to where we were at the end of the race, and that was fun. That’s what I meant by that, that we weren’t chasing a setup or track conditions or a variety of things that we’ve done in the past.”
Johnson was first during a restart with eight laps remaining with Bowyer starting second and Gordon was third. Johnson easily beat them to the first turn and pulled away to a three car-length victory.
In the process, Johnson led a career-high 346 laps. While everyone else was surprised, Hendrick wasn’t.
“I thought he was going to win the race when we got sitting on the pole,” Hendrick said. “His track record here is good.”
Gordon dominated Martinsville during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now it’s Johnson’s turn.
“I’m guessing Hendrick has got something figured out pretty good here,” Gordon said. “And Jimmie, he just has really figured this place out. There’s just certain tracks where the drivers that Hendrick has had over the past as well as now and just our race cars, it just really suits that.”
And there’s nothing Hendrick likes to do more than sit back and watch.
“I like to go to the front stretch and watch the cars come off the corner nice and straight and don’t bobble, and he does an excellent job with the throttle,” Hendrick said. “I was talking to Gordon about it, and he said that you will master it looking at the traces and figuring out how to run the track. He said he’s sorry he ever showed (Johnson) one of his.”
After his five-year championship run ended two years ago, Johnson now seems to be back on track for No. 6. He’s won two of the first six races this year and will take the Sprint Cup Series points lead into Saturday night’s NRA 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway.
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