Hendrick Motorsports will break through with win No. 200 at 'Dega
Owner Rick Hendrick has been sitting on 199 career victories since last October
If Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon can avoid the Big One, both have chance to win
Looking for a dark horse? Jamie McMurray, 18th, excels on restrictor-plate tracks
He has been at the track for nearly every race this season, always dressed in a finely pressed white button-down shirt and black pants, walking up and down pit road before the green flag waves. Rick Hendrick shakes the hands of his drivers before they hop into their cars for their warm-up laps, wishing them luck, telling them to be safe. Every race, no matter the weather or the track or his position in the standings, this is the pre-race ritual of Mr. H, which is what his drivers call him.
The 62-year-old Hendrick has been the most successful team owner in NASCAR during the 21st century -- he's won five of the last six championships with Jimmie Johnson -- but right now he's in a something of a funk. Dating to last October, Hendrick Motorsports has been shut out of Victory Lane for 15 consecutive races, the team's longest winless streak since 2003. What has made this drought even more agonizing for Hendrick is that he's sitting on 199 career wins in the Sprint Cup series, just one away from the magic number of 200.
Petty Enterprises is NASCAR's all-time wins leader with 268, but Petty ran for nearly a half century, from 1949 to 2008. Hendrick wasn't founded until 1984. Since then, Hendrick has had 15 different drivers reach Victory Lane. HMS has won at least one race for 27 straight years -- the longest active streak in NASCAR.
Will a Hendrick driver finally break through on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, site of the 10th race of the 2012 season? It says here that's exactly what will happen, with an aging Hendrick driver roaring into the winner's circle.
Herewith, my five drivers to watch at 'Dega:
1. Jimmie Johnson
Though Johnson has yet to win this season, he's flashed impressive speed. His current average finish of 10.0 -- a pace he should be able to maintain -- would be the second best of his career.
At Talladega Johnson typically likes to test his car early and see if he can charge to the front. Once he knows the quality of his equipment, he tends to drop to the rear of the field, quietly knock out laps, and try to avoid the big wrecks. Then, with about 25 to go, he and his drafting partner -- likely to be Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- will make their move and shoot for the lead.
Last year at 'Dega, Johnson and Earnhardt waited too long to make their final charge and Johnson finished 26th -- a result that essentially ended his five-year reign as the Cup champion. He won't make that mistake again. Johnson, currently sixth in points, has two career wins at the 2.66-mile tri-oval, and as long as he can avoid the Big One on Sunday, he should be good for at least a top-five run.
2. Jamie McMurray
McMurray is one of the top restrictor-plate racers in NASCAR. Though he's 18th in points this season and has yet to record a top-five finish, he should be a credible threat to win on Sunday.
He's led laps in each of his last five starts at Talladega, and over that stretch he has one win and one second-place finish at NASCAR's biggest track. If you like dark horses, McMurray should be your driver on Sunday.
3. Kevin Harvick
Like McMurray, Harvick has led at least one lap in his last five Talladega starts. Harvick has an uncanny knack for avoiding trouble at both Daytona and Talladega, which is what he did at 'Dega in the spring of 2010 when he took the checkers.
This is an important race for the No. 29 team. Harvick has yet to win this season and he has only two top-five finishes. If Harvick is going to seriously challenge for the championship, he needs early-season victories -- especially at his best tracks -- that will translate into bonus points in the Chase. Based on Harvick's past performances at Talladega, Sunday should be his best shot at Victory Lane so far in 2012.
4. Matt Kenseth
The fastest cars at the season-opening Daytona 500 belonged to Roush-Fenway Racing. This doesn't automatically mean Roush will have an advantage at Talladega, the sister track of Daytona, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
Kenseth won the fireball delayed Daytona 500 and, in his last five starts, he's had four top-five runs. Kenseth has never been a fan of restrictor-plate racing -- like many drivers, he believes (accurately, I think) that luck is more important than skill at these tracks -- but Kenseth has steadily improved over the years at this form of racing. He hasn't finished in the top 10 in his last 10 starts at 'Dega, but look for him to break that streak on Sunday.
5. Jeff Gordon
All throughout the Daytona Speedweeks it appeared that Gordon had one of the cars to beat in the 500. But then, not even halfway through the race, his engine gave out and he came in 40th.
This has been a disappointing season for the four-time champion. He has only one top-five run (at Texas Motor Speedway), has an average finish of 20.3 (which would be a career low), and is now 17th in the standings. Gordon still has plenty of time to rebound and qualify for the Chase, but his margin for error is rapidly shrinking.
This is one reason I think he'll win his first race of the season on Sunday. At age 40, Gordon knows his opportunities to win another title are dwindling. He claims he's been pleased with the speed of his car nearly every week this season, but he's been undone by awful racing luck -- an untimely caution here, a fluky occurrence on pit road there. All drivers confront this; all the best drivers overcome this.
My crystal ball says this will be his turnaround race. In 38 starts at Talladega, Gordon has six career victories. Given his tight relationship with Mr. H, it would no doubt be especially sweet to Gordon, Hendrick's all-time win leader (85 Ws), to capture number 200 for his boss on Sunday.