A 12-race winless streak in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing isn't unusual considering the quality of competition, but when the winless team is the best in the sport, it certainly draws some attention.
It has been 12 races since Jimmie Johnson drove to victory at Kansas Speedway on Oct. 9, 2011. Since that time, no Hendrick Motorsports driver has made it to Victory Lane but that is certainly no reflection on their effort. This season alone, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 and third at California and Martinsville. Jimmie Johnson was fourth at Phoenix, second at Las Vegas and 10th at California. The team's other two drivers have struggled with Jeff Gordon finishing eighth at Phoenix and 12th at Vegas for his best two finishes, and Kasey Kahne has struggled big-time with a best finish of 14th at Fontana.
Johnson's last win marked the 199th Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports. The team had every reason to believe they would celebrate win No. 200 in 2011, but that celebration has been on hold for so long the champagne has gone stale.
Hendrick Motorsports is having a run of luck so bad that it has effectively blocked its path to Victory Lane. That was never more evident than this past Sunday when the team was poised to score a 1-2-3 finish at Martinsville Speedway before a bizarre turn of events determined the race. Gordon was in front and Johnson and Earnhardt were second and third respectively when David Reutimann's ailing car came to a stop on the frontstretch with three laps left in the scheduled 500-lap distance. On the restart, Clint Bowyer was tagged from behind by Ryan Newman, triggering an accident that sidelined both Gordon and Johnson.
Newman would go on to win the race in a green-white-checkered-flag finish with Earnhardt third. But for Gordon and Johnson it was another day of frustration. Gordon finished 14th after dominating to the tune of 328 laps led. Johnson finished 12th in a race where he led three times for 112 laps.
"I really thought we had a chance to get Rick [Hendrick] his 200th win today, and it is just unfortunate that this Chevrolet is all beat-up and didn't have a chance to get the trophy," Johnson said after the race. "It's just unfortunate when something stupid, [a] last-ditch effort, dive-bomb or something along those lines wipes you out. But when you race long enough, you know, that stuff happens."
Of the four drivers at Hendrick, Earnhardt is by far having the best season as he enters the break just six points behind points leader Greg Biffle. NASCAR's most popular driver has three top-five and four top-10 finishes in the first six races and is doing everything he needs to do except win a race -- something he hasn't done in 135 races.
Johnson is 10th in points, 37 out of the lead with two top-five and four top-10 finishes.
From there, it drops off dramatically. Gordon is 21st in the standings, 90 points off the pace, with no top fives and only one top-10.
And there then is Kahne, who was considered a major contender for this year's Cup title after joining Hendrick Motorsports in the offseason. But not even a pole at Martinsville could jumpstart Kahne's sluggish season. Bad luck, in the form of engine failure, knocked him out of the race after 256 laps and doomed him to a 38th-place finish. On the season Kahne is way back in 31st place and has yet to crack the top 10.
The good news for the Hendrick drivers? It's still early in the season and there's plenty of time for their bad luck to change.
"When you run 15th all day long and finish second, you leave the track knowing you got more than you should have," Johnson said. "The days that you lead the most laps, and dominate a race and come home second, those sting."
"But growing up in racing, I didn't have this kind of success until I got to the Cup level. It's not that I was ever happy with not winning, but you just learn how to deal with your emotions and you learn how to learn from experiences and get better and stronger at it. ... Right now I'm very optimistic about our season. ... I feel that we're knocking on the door and we're running on the racetrack where we should, and up front, and that's going to give us chance to win."
Considering that Johnson has won five Cup titles and Gordon four, they know that with success also comes hard times.
"I remember for me in the mid-to-late '90's everybody would be like, Well, Jeff will get to 200 wins by this time," Gordon recalled. "It's like come on that is not realistic that you can keep up that kind of record or those kinds of stats. You know that they are going to go up and down and you have to be realistic about that.
"Right now it is just about putting the whole race together," Gordon continued. "It's about having the car that we need and then making sure that the rest of the things fall, that we don't make mistakes. ... I don't think we are that far away from winning races I will be honest. I think we just have to eliminate the mistakes and we have a lot of races left to be able to pull that off."
There is hope for Hendrick Motorsports because the next few races on the schedule are among their better tracks, including two that Gordon is very excited about -- Kansas and Richmond.
"Those are both tracks that I would say are highlighted on our schedule," Gordon admitted. "We are excited about getting to those races. Kansas was a great track for us last year. I think that our cars are better now than they were then. ... Richmond, we ran great at Richmond last year too. Not a lot has changed there so another short-track. I think our short-track program is very strong with this team. I'm looking forward to a little break but I'm really looking forward to getting things turned around for us and I think we have some great tracks to be able to do that."
Maybe after a week off Hendrick Motorsports can find the one ingredient that has been missing lately: a little bit of luck on the racetrack.