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Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick, and Danica Patrick: quite a night at ol' Darlington

Jimmie Johnson, Rick Hendrick, and Danica Patrick: quite a night at ol' Darlington

Chad Knaus' crew pits Jimmie Johnson in Saturday night's Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Yes, Jimmie Johnson won the race, and, yes, Danica Patrick defied the skeptics and finished the full four hours of Saturday night's Southern 500.
   But in a larger sense, this was Rick Hendrick's night.
   Think about this – 200 NASCAR Cup tour victories, first on the Winston Cup tour and lately on the Sprint Cup tour. That, in an era – make that eras, plural – when competition is incredibly tough.
   That's why Hendrick, who first joined this tour in 1984, spent so much time here at Darlington Raceway Saturday night celebrating. And being celebrated.
   "When something like this happens to you, you've got to think you've been blessed," Hendrick, 62, said. "And you've been blessed to be around some great, great people."
    Like Chad Knaus, the veteran crew chief who has eclipsed even the legendary Ray Evernham.  
    "To see Chad grow into what he's become as a crew chief…." Hendrick went on. "And Jimmie -- when he was 16 we got him in a late model car.
    "To see them do the things that they've done, I feel very, very fortunate just to go along on the ride.
     "Probably the neatest thing when I look back at NASCAR in my almost 30 years here are the friends that I've got, that I have to race against every week: Richard Childress, Joe Gibbs, Roger Penske, all those guys.  Great friends.  
    "This is a special family. The NASCAR family is a special family."  


   Crew chief Chad Knaus: a Hendrick Motorsports veteran of many, many years. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Hendrick's major league career began with Harry Hyde, Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine and Kenny Schrader.
    And Hendrick is a local-boy-made-good, from Raleigh, now Charlotte.
    "Tonight -- when I think about Darlington, how special this place is…in 1976 I had a little Chevy dealership over here in Bennettsville," Hendrick said.
   "My wife and I, about a third of the way through the race, drove into the track, drove up behind the stands. Didn't buy a ticket, just parked the car and went up in the stands and watched the race.  I don't know how we did that.  
     "It's been a lot of years since then.
     "I'm just proud of these guys and the whole organization."

      Knaus is the man who led Johnson to a record five straight NASCAR championships. Johnson and Knaus got the 150th career win for Hendrick, in Las Vegas.  "I guess we won our 50th victory here at Darlington…I was changing tires for Jeff Gordon," Knaus said. "I had the Oakley glasses, the mullet.  I was rocking back then."

   It hasn't been the greatest season so far for Hendrick. The win was his team's first since last October. Bad luck has dogged newcomer Kasey Kahne and four-time champ Jeff Gordon.
   "Kasey has had the worst luck…and Jeff, I wouldn't fly home with him," Hendrick said with a laugh. "I told Jeff 'I got seats on the helicopter, but you can't go with me.'"

   Kurt Busch (51) and Ryan Newman (39) didn't quite see eye to eye in the Southern 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Fuel mileage was a big part of everyone's game. It cost Tony Stewart a shot at the win. And it had Johnson sweating in the final miles.
    "Chad told me on the radio we'd 'made our bed and had to lie in it' on the strategy," Johnson said.
    "We caught some cautions that helped.  Then we just had a really fast car -- I could try to save fuel going down the straightaway, and just fly through the corner.  The car handled so well it allowed me to save more fuel.
    "But I still was really nervous with Tony behind me.  He's been the guy week after week that can go the distance.  I was trying to pace myself off of him.  It worked out.
     "But I was nervous, definitely nervous. Even as I came around to get the white, I had a nice gap, and Chad was still asking me to be smart and save some fuel if I could.  I'm like 'What? It's the end of the race.'"
    Kyle Busch wound up fourth, and he might have finished better if not for track position. After a slow, methodical start to the season, he and crew chief Dave Rogers have picked up the pace.
    But the late-race restarts here "are terrible," Busch said. "The track doesn't have any grip. We have no tire grip.  
    "All you do is spin the tires.
    "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.  I gave him too much room and kind of hurt myself a little bit.  Probably gave Denny a spot.
    "If the race would have went green without the last caution, we probably would have ended up second. I think I could have got Stewart."

    And something of a footnote to the night – Danica Patrick in her Darlington debut.
   "I know I didn't have a great result, but I accomplished all the things I wanted to accomplish," Patrick said.
    "Things went good on the Nationwide side (she finished 12th Friday night).
    "Here on the Cup side my goals were to be respectable out there. I think I held my own. And the other one was to finish.
    "So overall, good night. I will be much less worried coming back to this place.
     "It was a really successful weekend at a track that could have been a disaster.
     "This is a step in the right direction. I can finally thank Tony Stewart for putting this one on the schedule.
     "I definitely got a feel for all the elements -- Starts, restarts and pitting.
     "We started out really loose, and we struggled. Then it was really good when Zippy (crew chief Greg Zipadelli) fixed it."
    The track changed as afternoon turned to night, and temperatures dropped. And the line changed a bit. "That is part of the challenge," she said.
    "You have got a lot of different sets of tires going through, a lot of different changes to the car, and the track is ever evolving.
      "Adapting to those quickly is the name of the game.
      "Smoke did a good job. So I will have to ask him how he did that."

   Jimmie Johnson, number 200 for team owner Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



Her performance was underwhelming. She pretty much finished last yet writers and broadcasters are kissing her butt and sponsers are throwing money at her. Nascar is a sport? Her emergence disgraces the competitive history of Nascar.

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