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.