News & Media

Hendrick drivers pumped after impressive PIR run

February 28, 2011, Jill Erwin,

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Four HMS cars, plus two from Stewart-Haas, finish in top 13 at Phoenix

The Hendrick haters were in full bloom following sub-par performances at Daytona and qualifying efforts at Phoenix.

However, all four Hendrick Motorsports cars and the two from Stewart-Haas -- which have a technical partnership with Hendrick -- found themselves 13th or better when the checkered flag dropped on the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Sunday.

Skid is over

Beau Estes and Mike Bell break down Jeff Gordon's win at Phoenix and the Hendrick crew swap in Green-White-Checkered.

It was a bit of redemption for the team which has been the big dog in the Sprint Cup Series garage for the past five seasons.

"As a group we came here and started [Sunday] with our tail between our legs and it's nice to finish up the day with one in Victory Lane and one in third," five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said after his third-place finish. "[It was] a good day for HMS."

It sure didn't look like it was going to work out that well at the end of qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Ryan Newman of SHR (14th) was the top qualifier among the top six cars using Hendrick engines. His team owner/teammate Tony Stewart (18th) was next. The Hendrick drivers themselves? They were all 20th or worse.

But it didn't take long for the guys to allay their leader's fears.

"I don't know about them but I was sure down after I got off the plane [Saturday] afternoon," owner Rick Hendrick said. "I talked to them and they said, 'We are pretty good, we are good in race trim, the car feels good. We just didn't have the speed and I think we'll be OK [Sunday].' You never know."

It turned out to be better than OK. Jeff Gordon snapped his 66-race winless streak with a 1.137-second victory in front of Kyle Busch. Johnson was third, Newman fifth, Stewart seventh, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 10th and Mark Martin 13th.

"I think it feels good," Earnhardt said. "I was happy to see the [No.] 24 and the [No.] 48 run well. It feels good seeing them run well. We can go back, see what they did. We're all a little bit different in our setups, so we can go home and see if we can learn from that.

"I think Vegas is pretty decent for me. I don't really enjoy running there, but I think we can get in there and hopefully have another good run and gain more confidence in ourselves and our ability as a group."

Just a week earlier, Martin had the best finish of the six cars when he finished 10th in the Daytona 500. And after less-than-stellar qualifying efforts, there was more than a little unease for those around the teams.

"Not only did we switch around the shops and the drivers," Johnson said, "but the over the wall guys have changed dramatically on all four teams, our cars, the setups, there's a lot of new stuff underneath those familiar paint jobs on the Hendrick cars."

Phoenix-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson said it was a matter of learning those new parts and moving quickly on incorporating them into a winning gameplan.

"We have to quantify all of that in a very, very short period of time," Gustafson said. "And to be completely honest with you, there is no good way to say it, we were not good. I mean, we were far off. We were not right. And the thing that I'm probably most proud of the win, is that none of our team, Jeff, myself, none of the guys, at all wavered from the plan. We knew that coming here -- we did not know what was going to come out behind the door when we opened it up."

Gordon understood completely, and he was up for the roller-coaster ride.

"We showed up here and qualified 20th and I was like, 'Oh, man, that was a little bit of a letdown.' " Gordon said. "But when they dropped the green [Sunday], I was like, 'Ahh, that's what I thought it would be like.' To pull it off, it's awesome, it's a great feeling."

Earnhardt hasn't exactly been racking up the top-10s lately, so to bring one home at a track he doesn't always succeed at put a little bounce in his step.

"This is the best I've run here in a long time," Earnhardt said. "I really haven't been that competitive in the last six, seven trips here. I didn't have to really work that hard, either. If I tried to overdrive the car, it just went slower. It was nice to just work the car around the corner and try to work around guys.

"I do want to run better. [I'm] definitely not jumping up and down over what we did [Sunday], but it's a step in the right direction. This is a leap in the right direction for me."