It must have started to feel to Rick Hendrick and his four-driver line-up (Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr.) that they were never going to get that monkey off their backs of the 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win for Hendrick Motorsports. It's been looming over them for so long that turning up at each racetrack every week and being asked, "Will it be this time?" had become a way of life.
But now, finally, the monkey has gone. The 200th win is in the bag, and it was left to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson - the man who has contributed over a quarter of those 200 wins already over the course of 12 seasons with the team - to finally push push them over the top with victory in the 2012 Bojangles' Southern 500 race at Darlington Raceway under the floodlights on Saturday night.
"I can't believe we won 200 of these things," said a jubilant Rick Hendrick in victory lane, before adding: "And I can't believe it took this long after 199!"
"This is a huge moment for all of Hendrick Motorsports," said Jimmie Johnson after claiming the chequered flag. "There have been a lot of people over the years, a lot of years that led to these 200 wins. I thank them all. I respect them all. And I'm very proud of my race team today.
"I wouldn't have won a bunch of these now if it wasn't for his vision," added Johnson about the importance of the role played by Hendrick in shaping his team's success. "I wouldn't be here today to contribute to these great wins. But in typical Rick Hendrick fashion he said: 'We got 200 - now let's go get 250!'"
Johnson controlled much of the race on Saturday night, leading for a total of 134 of the 368 laps over the course of nearly four hours of racing. Polesitter Greg Biffle led for the first 48 laps before the first round of pit stops, after which Kyle Busch went to the front for 20 laps and then Biffle returned to lead proceedings again for another 25. It was after a second round of pit stops that Johnson hit the lead for the first time and then decided he liked it so much that he'd move in and redecorate, staying at the sharp end through a third round of green flag pit stops for the next 72 laps straight.
Despite some near misses - Marcos Ambrose had a big save on lap 140 - it wasn't until lap 172 that the uninterrupted green flag run that had lasted from the start of proceedings finally came to and end, with the first caution of the night for debris in turn 2 finally allowing the drivers to take a bit of a breather from the punishment being handed out by the notorious Darlington circuit.
By this point, anyone who was going to drop out of the race had already done so with a variety of technical glitches ranging from overheating to vibration and electrical issues. JJ Yeley, Cole Whitt, David Stremme, Joe Nemechek, Mike Skinner, Scott Speed and Josh Wise were all parked up, leaving 36 cars still on track of which only 14 were still on the lead lap at the restart on lap 179.
Kyle Busch briefly went to the front to lead at the halfway point at the race, then Jimmie Johnson was back in charge just in time for the second debris caution of the night on lap 196 after Jeff Gordon's left rear tyre had a bit of a breakdown and went to pieces. He'd suffer a second flat just minutes later following the restart, putting him straight back onto pit road; and a third just 20 laps after that sending him to the garage to find out just what the underlying problem was, putting him 35 laps off the lead and well out of contention.
It was Denny Hamlin who had stayed out of pit lane under the caution to duly led the field to the green flag at the restart on lap 199, but it was Kasey Kahne who was quickest with new right side tyres who quickly took the front spot. Hamlin was holding on in second place but he was in a vulnerable position having not pitted under that previous caution, so he was the most relieved man on the track when the yellows came out in the nick of time on lap 231 for the third debris caution of he evening.
After the caution had fallen so well for him, Hamlin made the most of the pit stops and just edged Greg Biffle out of pit road for the lead at the restart. Biffle's car was loose during this stint and he fell away, leaving the pursuit of Hamlin to Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson.
Hamlin looked quite comfortable in charge for nearly 50 laps, but found himself jumped in pit lane by Truex Jr. during a round of green flag stops that included Darlington rookie Danica Patrick getting a drive-thru penalty for hitting the commitment cone on the way in. Shortly after this the track went yellow for a spin by Bobby Labonte and everyone had a chance for a more considered pit stop, allowing them to make set-up adjustments in readiness for the final 70 lap run to the chequered flag.
Truex Jr. kept the lead after opting for two new tyres; Kyle Busch was second followed by Jimmie Johnson, who had requested the #48 get tightened up as he too took two tyres, while Joey Logano was now in front of Hamlin who had opted for a full four-tyre change. Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards rounded out the top ten for the restart on lap 303.
Busch uncharacteristically struggled at the restart,providing Jimmie Johnson with the opportunity to steal into second place for a rapid return to yellow flag conditions for a spin by Regan Smith in turn 4. A few of the leaders including Truex, Newman, Kahne and Earrnhardt Jr. took this as a sign to come back to pit lane for new tyres or fuel top-offs, but Jimmie Johnson was thinking along different lines and was already in fuel conservation mode, cutting the engine on and off as he waited to lead the field to the next restart.
When it came, Kyle Busch made up for his previous sluggish start and claimed the lead, thwarting Johnson's counterstrike. However it was a short lived green and Jamie McMurray found the wall out of turn 4 with the involvement of AJ Allmendinger to put the race under its sixth yellow of the night.
Johnson was still being told by his crew chief Chad Knaus to stay off pit road, and he duly obeyed orders despite qualms about his fuel load. He followed Kyle Busch to the green flag and then took over the lead from the #18 on lap 324 with just over 40 laps to run. Could he make it all the way, or would Hendrick miss out on his 200th win yet again?
Johnson was helped in his fuel worries by a new caution on lap 330 for a spin by Reed Sorenson. At the restart, a new threat emerged for Johnson when Tony Stewart slid past a fading Kyle Busch to take up the second position, seemingly set on stalking the #48 ahead and wait and see how the fuel conservation plan played out.
Johnson wasn't sparing the horses in his concerns over fuel and was pulling out around a mile a hour over the current Cup champion as the race settled into a 27-lap groove that finally came to an end on lap 361 with Kurt Busch getting into the wall and spinning, coaxing Ryan Newman into a spin as well to invoke the eighth caution of the night.
"Busch spun in front of me coming around turn four, and when I checked up Almirola just got into the back of me," explained Newman after the race. "It's unfortunate the night had to end that way."
That meant the race ended up extending into a green-white-chequered finish, which could have proved a problem for Johnson. But all his fuel-saving antics had given him a sufficient margin of safety, and he put his foot down at the restart and eased away from Tony Stewart - who it turned out was the one with the fuel problems after all, and who found himself unable to hold off a late surge for the runners-up spot by Denny Hamlin.
"The fuel pressure light had went down, or the light was blinking when we got the one to go," explained Stewart. "So I had to go down to the apron. It caught on the backstretch. But then we got past the centre of three and four and the light was down to 20 pounds again. It laid down all the way down the front stretch and we lost second because of it."
Stewart had also been suffering from clutch problems during the final third of the race, he revealed. "I broke the clutch with about 85 to go," he confirmed. "Our guys did an awesome job of getting us out of the pits. It didn't affect us on restarts; it just affected us on the pit stops." In the circumstances, holding onto third is a very positive outcome for the Cup champion.
Kyle Busch wasn't much of a threat in that last phase of the race either: “We were just so loose at the end of the race,” he said. “Those late race restarts were terrible ... The track doesn't have any grip.
"All you do is spin the tires, and on the last restart, I tried to give Stewart a little bit of room because he was low on fuel pressure so I wouldn't run over him in case his car shut out," he continued. "I gave him too much room and kind of hurt myself a little bit. I probably gave the #11 a spot. Glad I didn't give another one away to the #56, but we were able to come home fourth."
At least the #11 was his Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Denny Hamlin, who hung on to second place but had no chance of reaching Jimmie Johnson in the remaining seconds of the race. The Hendrick pits exploded with relief as the magic 200th victory finally materialised for them, and there was no one happier than Johnson himself.
During the final minutes, Rick Hendrick himself had gone pacing up and down pit lane away from the team hauler. Even with 199 wins under his belt, it did nothing to assuage the nerves when it came to number 200.
"I had to get away," Hendrick said. "They said that we were going to make it [on fuel], but I don't believe them!" he admitted, adding: "I'm kind of numb, but I'm glad it's over. I think we're going to win a few more now."
"I think it's phenomenal, especially with the competition over here getting tougher and tougher," said Tony Stewart, himself a relatively new team owner just finding out how difficult it is to run a successful NASCAR Sprint Cup operation. "Especially for it to happen in the Southern 500. It's such a historic race. It's a pretty cool milestone."
The gleam in his eyes said that Stewart had his new life goal - to match the 200th milestone. Hendrick, meanwhile, was already back to work plotting how to get to 250.Full race results and times
available, and Sprint Cup championship points and positions