Hendrick Motorsports has never seen a day like Sunday.
It came into the Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway with four teams in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
When the checkered flag fell after 194 laps – six more than the scheduled 188 – as hard as it may seem to believe, only one HMS driver will advance to the Eliminator Round.
You can forget about:
- Jimmie Johnson’s bid to defend last year’s championship and his hope to win a seventh Sprint Cup crown.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s bid to earn his first-ever Sprint Cup championship and to send Steve Letarte out as a championship-winning crew chief. Letarte is leaving HMS after this season to become an analyst on NBC telecasts of NASCAR races next season.
- Kasey Kahne’s Cinderella-like hopes to move into the third round of the Chase.
As NASCAR moves to the next race at Martinsville, only the patriarch of the four HMS drivers, four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, will be left to represent the team in the Eliminator Round.
His so-called “Drive For Five” bid for a fifth career Cup championship and his first since 2001 is still alive and well.
“I’m just mentally drained right now,” Gordon told ESPN. “It’s always tough to race here at Talladega and put yourself in position and know your championship hopes are right there in that final moment. It’s nerve-wracking.
“I’m proud of this team and the job they did. We fought hard.
“I’m just glad we made it. I can’t wait for Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix, all great tracks for us. This team has done some amazing work this year, these next three are where we’re really going to shine and show them.”
Gordon acknowledged how difficult it is to know he is the only driver left to salvage HMS’s championship hopes, but at the same time, it’s somewhat of a byproduct of racing at Talladega and the situation the three now-eliminated drivers faced coming into Sunday’s race.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “We knew that Jimmie and Junior were in tough positions, but if anyone could win this race, either one of those guys could.
“Kasey raced hard all day. I really thought he was going to make it.
“These are three guys that could have been factors in this championship. Great teams, great drivers and friends of mine and I hate to see them not in there.
“But we’re going to try to make Hendrick proud and go out there and get ourselves to Homestead.”
Kahne missed the Eliminator Round by just three points. When interviewed by ESPN after the race, he seemed as if he was still in disbelief that he fell short.
“You just try and get the best finish you can,” Kahne said. “I’m in 20th (position in the race) and got back up to 11th.
“It was tough if you weren’t in the top few spots. Once I was 10th, eighth, it was really difficult to get back up to that point and that was it.”
30 Seconds to Know: How does the Chase Eliminator round work?
Follow me @JerryBonkowski