It’s 11 Sprint Cup championships and counting for Hendrick Motorsports, but that doesn’t alter the magnitude of Jeff Gordon attempting to make it an even dozen.
If anything, Sunday’s Ford 400 will be the most stressful – and perhaps the most special – title battle yet for NASCAR’s most powerful team.
“If I said you could go into that race like everything’s normal, I’d be lying to you,” team owner Rick Hendrick told NASCAR Talk in a recent interview.
Gordon’s final career start in the Sprint Cup Series will mark the first appearance by a Hendrick driver in the revamped playoff system that pits four drivers in the season finale with the championship awarded to the highest finisher.
Between six titles by Jimmie Johnson, four by Gordon and one by Terry Labonte, along with a near-miss for Johnson in ’12 and for Johnson and Gordon in ‘04, being in title contention is a familiar conceit at Hendrick. Yet this season’s circumstances will offer a new set of challenges.
“I’ve been there a lot of times, and we’ve won them and lost them,” Hendrick said. “We wanted to see Jimmie win three and five in a row. We wanted to see Terry and Jeff win. All those were important.
“But when you say here’s a guy that won 93 races and been like a little brother and son to me and the family. This is his final deal, and if you could wish for anything in the racing arena, this would be so special, and probably the most special if we can pull it off.
“It’s going to be a nervous, finger-biting, stomach-churning, all of that, but at least you’ve got a shot.”
In case he needed any reminders of what’s at stake, Hendrick has been besieged by people seeking tickets to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I’ve got everybody I ever went to high school with or claims that they used to take care of my dog when I used to live in South Carolina,” he said with a laugh. “You name it, they’ve been calling wanting tickets and wanting to introduce so and so to Jeff. It’s been damn crazy.
“It’s going to be a very emotional deal. Good, sad, happy, excited, all of that stuff rolled into one. It’s going to be a very emotional race no matter how it turns out.”