News & Media

Johnson-Earnhardt Jr. collaboration paying off

May 27, 2012, David Caraviello,

CONCORD, N.C. -- Hendrick drivers are in the top five in standings and are Coca-Cola 600 favorites

Two cars, one roof.

That's been standard operating procedure for Rick Hendrick since 2002, when the championship car owner expanded to accommodate a fourth Sprint Cup program headlined by a then-unknown driver named Jimmie Johnson. Hendrick paired the new outfit in a building with the more experienced team of Jeff Gordon, and the result was an explosive progression that netted 71 combined victories for the stablemates during the ensuing eight years.

"I have been sitting up here telling all of you [in the media] that we are close, and it is coming, and look at the laps led and all that stuff. I'm glad to be able to back up what I have been talking about over these last few months."


So three seasons ago when Hendrick faced the prospect of rebuilding a No. 88 team that was languishing deep in the standings, he used the same approach. This time the intended beneficiary was Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was mired in 25th place while his teammates swept the top three positions. Hendrick paired a now-multiple-time champion Johnson with Earnhardt in a rechristened 48/88 building, hoping the success of one would rub off on the other.

It took time, the development not occurring nearly as rapidly as it had during the first days of the 24/48 building years earlier. But this Memorial Day weekend, the fruits of that union are obvious -- Earnhardt and Johnson both enter Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 with top-five standings in points, they're both coming off strong runs in last weekend's Sprint All-Star Race, and they're both seen as favorites to claim NASCAR's longest race.

"In the No. 48 and No. 88 shop, there is a lot of excitement," Johnson said, and with good reason. A six-time winner at Charlotte, Johnson claimed last weekend's non-points event by running away from the field in the final 10-lap segment. He backed that up by qualifying third for the Coca-Cola 600, then posted one of the top-five speeds in final Cup practice Saturday. Although Earnhardt qualified 12th for the race and didn't fare as well in final practice, he's back in the same car that won last weekend's Sprint Showdown preliminary race and took the fourth and final segment of the main event.

"Every time we come to the race track this year, I feel like just judging on the performance at that particular track the year before that we've been better, faster and have had more speed. And I feel like I got that again this past weekend at the All-Star Race," Earnhardt said. "Had a good judge of how much better of a race team we are. So I feel like we should come in and compete this weekend, and if we're fortunate and do the right things as far as pit strategy goes, to put ourselves up toward the front like we did last year."

And hopefully, have enough fuel to get to the finish line. Perhaps the most agonizing moment of Earnhardt's 140-race winless skid came in this event last season, when he held the lead off the final corner but ran out of gas. Kevin Harvick won, while Earnhardt coasted home in seventh, among much gnashing of teeth in the grandstand. At the time, Earnhardt took the close call as a positive sign. Over time, though, it began to eat at him.

"It was tough to come so close last year and not win the race," he said. "My initial reaction was that I was happy that we actually rolled across the finish lane in seventh. ... I was really relieved that it wasn't worse than that. And then after a while you start thinking about, oh yeah, we really came close to winning a race. It was really unfortunate there wasn't just a little bit more gas in the car or whatever to get us to Victory Lane, because that would have been a great way to cap off a pretty good weekend. So it was a bit frustrating over time. But we ran good, and ... I've said it all year long, that I think we're a little bit better team than we were last year."

That much is evident in the standings. A tough night at Darlington two weeks ago snapped a run of six straight top-10s in points events, and Earnhardt's car on All-Star night was clearly one of the best in the field. That same chassis is back for the 600, which the driver sees as unfinished business.

"If the car is good enough, and we're good enough and do everything we need to do, we'll be right there with an opportunity to win a race," Earnhardt said. "And that's what you have to concentrate on."

Johnson is using a car different from the one he drove to victory last weekend -- given that 600 qualifying is held on a Thursday, he said it would have been a push for his team to have the same car ready for this week. His 600 car also is different in terms of setup, and judging from qualifying and practice, whatever changes crew chief Chad Knaus made were the right ones. Now Johnson, who snapped a 16-race winless streak two weeks ago at Darlington, aims to reassert himself at a track where he's won six times, but just once since it was resurfaced in 2006.

"We are really pleased with where our cars are right now," Johnson said. "I have been sitting up here telling all of you [in the media] that we are close, and it is coming, and look at the laps led and all that stuff. I'm glad to be able to back up what I have been talking about over these last few months. It really just boils down to the hard work that has come through the engine shop, chassis shop, our engineering staff and the crew chiefs. We have a better product this year. We have been able to be close to Victory Lane a few times so far this year, and then we got it done the last two weeks."

Strangely enough, the resurgence of the two cars coming out of Hendrick's 48/88 shop come as the organization's other two vehicles -- the No. 24 of Gordon and the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne, which also are housed together -- are trying to shake rough starts. For now, though, Johnson and Earnhardt are the clear standard-bearers on what recently has been NASCAR's best team. And there's no rivalry between them, which perhaps helps foster their combined success.

"We're good teammates," Earnhardt said. "I think we work really well together. I think we complement each other. The two teams complement each other quite well. They've been together for a couple of years, so there's a real great bond in that shop. It's kind of like one whole group. It's really hard to see the line between the two teams."