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Menzer: Hendrick drivers left looking for blame as 200th slips away

April 02, 2012, Joe Menzer,

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Blame game not easy to figure as Hendrick's 200th victory party wrecked

This was no cruel April Fools' Day joke. But the Goody's Fast Relief 500 sure played out that way for Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

The hats commemorating a historic 200th Cup Series victory for the organization were practically ready to jump out of the box all on their own. Packed for months, they were teeming to get out and be placed on the heads of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and/or Dale Earnhardt Jr. and all the members of their respective teams.

Melee at M'ville

It was a pretty quiet race at Martinsville until caution came out with three laps to go. Then craziness broke out and left numerous drivers wondering just what happened.

Instead, it all went awry in the blink of an eye on the first green-white-checkered restart -- which became necessary after David Reutimann's car stalled on the frontstretch on Lap 497 to bring out an untimely caution in the scheduled 500-lap event. When the smoke cleared, Gordon and Johnson -- who had been running 1-2 at the time -- were wrecked and everyone was left afterward to search through the rubble for the right person to blame.

The thing is, this Blame Game wasn't so easy to figure out. Gordon at first blamed Bowyer and hunted him down in the garage, but emerged smiling after a brief conversation with him and switched the waggle of his pointed finger more toward Newman, who admitted he had given Bowyer a hard shot from behind but was defiantly unapologetic about it.

"It's hard to stay mad at Clint. He's such a funny guy," said Gordon, even though the end result was no laughing matter for his team or the Hendrick shop as a whole.

Johnson squarely blamed Bowyer for dive-bombing the No. 24 Chevrolet of Gordon and Johnson's own No. 48 Chevy as they headed into Turn 1.

"Clint put us all in a bad position when he decided to dive-bomb in there," Johnson said. "I'm sure once he got inside there, he realized he was trying to wedge a hole there where there wasn't one -- and he turned us all around. It was unfortunate. I wish he had been a little more patient there."

More blame game

Bowyer and Earnhardt, meanwhile, blamed Reutimann, wondering why he allowed his No. 10 Chevy to stall on the race track, bringing out the caution on Lap 498.

"I don't know what the hell the No. 10 car [of Reutimann] was doing," Bowyer said. "He drove around there for 10 laps with no brakes and finally just stopped. That was ridiculous."

Earnhardt, who finished third behind opportunistic race winner Ryan Newman and second-place finisher AJ Allmendinger, added: "The No. 15 [of Bowyer] dove to the bottom and it's his right. He was doing what he wanted to do to try and win the race. It's a green-white-checkered and that's what you're going to get here. So I think Clint did what he had to do. It just caused a little bit of trouble on the outside down there and we ran into the No. 24 [of Gordon].

"But I just don't know what the No.10 [Reutimann] was thinking with a broken sway bar and driving around there at 15 miles per hour for two or three laps. Come on pit road; hell, how many laps down are you? Get on pit road. Get out of the race. It shouldn't have ended like that. It was unfortunate."

Reutimann, meanwhile, blamed circumstances and faulty equipment for his problems that brought out the late caution that in turn led to the restart that became a disaster, in particular, for the Hendrick guys on a day when Gordon and Johnson combined to lead a total of 440 laps.

"Number one, I just hate it," said Reutimann, who was black-flagged by NASCAR and finished 35th, 79 laps down. "I just hate that I was involved in anything that changed the complexion of the race so I've got to apologize to the guys that it affected. It broke a tie-rod or something like that. I was just trying to limp around there. We needed to finish next couple of laps to try to stay in the top 35 [in points].

""That's Martinsville, green-white-checkered. There are no guarantees at this place. Anytime they stack them up like that on a restart, you know it's going to get ugly in the first couple of corners. "


"Then the motor had been breaking up for the last couple of laps. [We] broke a timing belt or whatever down the back straightaway, and the motor just quit. I would not have stopped on the freaking race track. I would have limped it around there and come to pit road, which is what I was trying to do. The thing quit going down the back straightaway, and it shut off. I didn't just stop there intentionally.

"I know it sucks. I hate it for everybody that it affected, but I mean I can't get out and push the thing. You know, it shut off. It's that simple."

Hats stay packed

Johnson earned win No. 199 for Rick Hendrick at Kansas last Oct. 9. By Monday, Oct. 10, the commemorative hats were on order.

By now someone may want to check the box where they remain packed away and make sure they aren't getting moth-eaten.

Surely Martinsville was going to be the track where the Hendrick mini-drought was broken. Hendrick cars had won 10 of the previous 18 races at the .526-mile short track -- and in the eight a Hendrick car didn't win, one finished second a total of six times.

For much of Sunday, Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt were 1-2-3 in the running order in one form or another. With 13 race victories between them at the venue, it seemed for most of the afternoon as if everyone was competing for third on back behind Gordon and Johnson. Or Johnson and Gordon.

Johnson actually was in the lead for a long stretch of 103 laps before being passed by Gordon just before the caution flag flew for Reutimann's stalled car. They entertained all day with tight racing, at times making observers wonder if they might be the only ones who could spoil the planned 200th victory party by wrecking each other.

"I love this race track. I love coming here," said Johnson, who started 22nd and ended up finishing 12th. "Even though we didn't qualify well, I knew we were still going to have a good race car -- and we did.

"On the restart [that led to the wreck], from the video I've seen, you know it's really inviting to make it three-wide on the inside going into the turn -- and you do have the room to do it on the straightaway. But the way the curb sticks out, there is no inside lane there."

Gordon said he knew nothing was certain even when he was three laps from taking the checkered flag. Not at Martinsville.

"That's Martinsville, green-white-checkered," Gordon said. "There are no guarantees at this place. Anytime they stack them up like that on a restart, you know it's going to get ugly in the first couple of corners. I was just hoping to get a decent start. I got a good jump, but then the tires spun. I didn't know if Clint had a big run or what happened. I guess he got a run and then the No. 39 gave him a pretty big shot. It pretty much took us all out there."

Asked if he would talk to Newman about it, Gordon shook his head.

"No. That was two cars back behind me," Gordon said. "I could sit here and say he ran in the No. 15 and sent Clint sliding down and took three of us out. There is no use in talking about it. It's just hard racing, guys trying to get every edge they can. Sometimes they do things that win them the race, sometimes they do things that cause wrecks -- and sometimes they do both."

And with that, the Hendrick No. 200 commemorative hats were sent packing again -- this time to Texas, where the next Sprint Cup race will be held in two weeks.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Watch highlights of the Goody's Fast Relief 500: