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Hendrick ready for Chase success

He hopes Jimmie Johnson will finally catch his break with three races remaining.

By BRANT JAMES
Published November 5, 2006


FORT WORTH, Texas - It's no surprise that Rick Hendrick is no fan of the Chase for the Championship.

In three seasons since its inception, a team that won five championships under the old system has finished second by eight points and fifth with Jimmie Johnson, and third with Jeff Gordon. Last year Gordon, a four-time champion, failed even to qualify for the 10-race, 10-driver playoff scheme.

A team that has paid millions to develop and replicate consistent high-level results has not figured how to hone luck in the engine shop or make its cars cut through misfortune in the wind tunnel. And that, he said, is frustrating and has kept Johnson, the driver with the most wins (17) since the Chase system began - six more than his nearest peer in that span - from winning the championship.

So with three races left in the third Chase entering today's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Hendrick hopes Johnson - 26 behind points leader Matt Kenseth - can finally catch a break.

In 2004, Johnson finished second in the final race of the season at Homestead as Kurt Busch held on to win the championship by a series-record-low eight points. Had Johnson made up the .342-second deficit to race-winner Greg Biffle, he would have earned enough points to win the championship, according to NASCAR statisticians. In 2005, Johnson won two Chase races but finished 127 points behind Tony Stewart.

If that break doesn't come, Hendrick said, the team's hard-earned realization that the Chase is an unforgiving beast should soothe its hurt again.

"You can't do anything about this Chase deal. It's the luck of the draw," he said.

"I try to tell Jimmie this: 'You won Daytona, the Indy race, the All-Star race. There's guys that would take that in a career and you've done it in a year, and you led the points. You can't let this championship thing eat you up.' "

Hendrick's offseason insistence that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus don't use the Chase to measure the value of their careers has apparently held so far.

"Believe me, there were times when it was tough to work through it, but Rick is so good at that, and he is a great people person. That's one of his biggest assets," Johnson said. "Through the discussions he has had with myself and Chad, we were really able to focus on the right things and take a lot of pressure we're putting on ourselves off of us and have a great season so far."

Johnson says he feels loose and ready for a final push, while Knaus spent much of the afternoon after practice Saturday making final preparations on the car with a crew that seemed confidently at ease. That's progress for a team that once put great pressure on itself to control every detail - partly why it led the points standings for 22 weeks this regular season - and for a crew chief who has insisted in the past his team would be the champion simply because it had the best of everything.

"(Johnson) and Chad last year, we met offseason and spent a lot of time talking about this not (being) life threatening," Hendrick said. "We want to be (in contention) for 10 years. (I said to them), 'You guys are young. You'll be the guys to beat every year, but in order to do that we can't let the pressure get to you.' "

Hendrick said the No. 48 team proved it listened to his advice when Johnson had a wire failure before being wrecked in the first of the Chase at Loudon, N.H., and appeared on another star-crossed Chase. Johnson seemed set for at least a second-place finish at Talladega before teammate Brian Vickers wrecked him and race-leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the final lap. He finished 24th. Johnson followed with two runnerup finishes and a win at Martinsville, and was fast in practice this weekend.

"As soon as we had problems, we said, 'Hey, let's just go win races and don't worry about it. If it happens, it happens. Let's try and see how many races we can win,' " Hendrick said.

"I'll tell you it's a whole lot more fun."

Brant James can be reached at brant@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8804.