By: Drew Hierwarter
Twenty five years ago Rick Hendrick was ready to hang it up. His young race team had been having no success, had not won a race and was running out of sponsorship money. The plan was that the 1984 Sovran Bank 500 at Martinsville would be their last race. Driver Geoff Bodine and crew chief Harry Hyde were contemplating unemployment. But Bodine had plenty of experience at Martinsville having driven a modified there for many years. He started sixth, drove a steady race, and took the lead for good on lap 452 of 500 and never looked back. Not only was it Rick Hendrick’s first win as a car owner at NASCAR’s highest level, but it was the first for Geoff Bodine also.
This past Sunday, Jimmie Johnson celebrated the 25th anniversary of his boss’s first win by handing him his 176th win and inviting him back to victory lane at Martinsville once again. Neither man is a stranger to the place any more. This was Johnson’s sixth time being there, five of them coming in his last six starts, and Hendrick’s 18th visit.
Johnson and Joe Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin put on a spirited battle for the lead in closing stages of the race. First one, then the other would take a turn at the front, until finally, with 15 laps to go, Johnson drove hard into turn three and got under Hamlin. Hamlin tried to hold his line and the two cars touched, nearly spinning both of them out.
“He did a helluva job of saving it.” Johnson said, “I thought I was going around too. . . I think Denny was trying real hard to protect his lead and win the race in his home state, and I wanted to get to the front really bad because I wanted to win one, and, too, I wanted to win one on the 25th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports’ first win.”
Hamlin had led 296 of the 500 laps and looked like he would be the runaway winner. The last time he won a race was one year ago at this same track and he was very hungry. But instead of being bitter about the final result, Hamlin was realistic saying that was what short track racing was all about.
“He did what it took to get past me.” Hamlin said,” If the roles were reversed, I’d do the same thing and will if it ever comes back around.”
The win moved Johnson up five spots in the points to fourth, just 142 behind his teammate and point leader, Jeff Gordon. Johnson is trying for a record breaking fourth consecutive NASCAR championship. In spite of his second place finish, Denny Hamlin gained three spots and moved into tenth. Third place finisher Tony Stewart remains seventh in points.