It’s not very often that the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut collectively suffers like it did on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
Want proof? All four Hendrick drivers – championship leader Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon – ran into trouble in the Quicken Loans 400 and all finished outside the Top 25 as a result; Johnson in 28th, Earnhardt in 37th, Kahne in 38th, and Gordon in 39th.
The last time that happened: The 2005 Toyota Save Mart 350 at the Sonoma Raceway road course. In that race, Gordon was 33rd, Brian Vickers was 34th, Johnson was 36th, and Kyle Busch was 40th.
On Sunday, Gordon was the first of the Hendrick camp to have a problem. On just the fourth lap of the race, he was collected by a spinning Bobby Labonte in Turn 2 and was then funneled into the wall.
“He just did one of those slow spins where I couldn’t tell which direction he was going to go, so I had to guess and I guessed the wrong way,” said Gordon. “I didn’t really have anywhere to go.”
That left Kahne, Earnhardt and Johnson, and all three of them showed strong pace this afternoon. Kahne took the lead from Earnhardt on Lap 90 and promptly checked out until Lap 104, when his right front tire suddenly blew and sent him careening into the wall. He had been leading by 3.6 seconds prior to the accident.
“I just was going into the corner and then it [went] ‘boom’ and turned right went straight into the wall,” said Kahne, who fell out of the Top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings (although, with his win earlier this year at Bristol, he is currently in a wild-card slot). “It was a hard hit.”
Earnhardt took over the lead after that incident, pacing the field for 23 laps until he suddenly fell off the pace. Then on Lap 131, his engine let go in a cloud of smoke – shattering the hopes of Junior Nation, which hasn’t see their man win since his triumph last June at MIS.
“There was no warning at all, even after I think we lost a cylinder,” said Earnhardt. “The gauges all looked really good. [I] flipped all the switches I could flip and nothing was really making a difference. We just had something come apart in the motor.”
Finally, HMS’ rotten afternoon ended with Johnson clouting the wall with three laps remaining while trying to mount one last attack on eventual winner Greg Biffle. Like Kahne, he was victimized by a flat tire, and he was forced to go to pit road for service.
Johnson’s lead in the championship also took a hit, as a Top-10 result from Carl Edwards (eighth) enabled him to pull within 31 points of “Five-Time” as the series heads back to Sonoma this coming weekend.
It’s a likely assumption that the Hendrick camp doesn’t want a repeat of the dark day they had there in 2005 – or of what happened to them Sunday in the Irish Hills.