Johnson, Martin develop rivalry quiet by NASCAR standards

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martin-johnson.jpg's Mark Beech takes a spin around the racing world for the most intriguing stories in and out of the garage.

For the magazine this week, I wrote about the competition between teammates Mark Martin and Jimmie Johnson, who currently rank first and second in the Cup standings. Such championship battles are nothing new at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson's duel with Jeff Gordon through the final weeks of the 2007 season is only the most recent example. In 1996, eight years before NASCAR implemented the Chase to decide its Cup championship, Gordon went toe-to-toe with Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte for the series title. And according to several team staffers, while complete cooperation may be the watchword at HMS these days, that wasn't always the case.

Brian Whitesell, who now oversees the team for Martin's No. 5 car, was working in the 24 shop with Gordon back then. He says that instead of sharing data and setup information, a rivalry grew between the 5 and the 24 teams that was akin to the one between Duke and North Carolina. And Labonte's 5 team was almost always the instigator of any and all rivalry related hi jinks. The reason: the 24 team members had a "religious fear of Ray [Evernham, Gordon's crew chief].'"

According to another source, this was a case of new school (Gordon and Evernham) vs. old school (Labonte and veteran crew chief Gary DeHart). Gordon and Evernham were tearing through the Cup series at that point, having won their first championship the year before. In '96, the pair led the Cup series with 10 wins, but their five DNFs cost the team dearly. Labonte and DeHart won only two races, but had just three DNFs and wound up winning the Cup by 37 points.

A few examples of the gamesmanship from sources at HMS:

• At the race track, Dehart would have his team cover the car and leave the garage early to mess with Evernham's head. Mr. Hendrick held a meeting with the 5 (Labonte) and 24 (Gordon) teams and told them "Do whatever you want to do to each other, but don't do anything that will lose this championship for Hendrick Motorsports."

• The 24 team had an engine that they were very proud of named "Big Wally." The 5 team, in turn, won four pole positions and named their engine the "Big Wally Eater."

• Every time the 5 would get a pole or beat the 24, Labonte's team would blare "Rooster" by Alice in Chains over the PA system in the 24 team's shop. Sample lyric: "Here they come to snuff the Rooster/Here come the Rooster, yeah/You know he ain't gonna die."

• According to Jeff Andrews, the head of the HMS engine department now -- and engine tuner for the 5 back then -- he 5 team would have "motivational parties" in the race shop. While they were doing that, the 24 team's pit crew would be working out on the lawn in front of their shop -- a classic example of the difference in motivational styles between Dehart and Evernham.

Andrews says that this all began to change in '01, when Johnson's 48 team was created and housed in the same shop with the 24. Johnson's instant success led to the policy of all-out, team-wide sharing. Andrews, for one, prefers the new setup. "The sharing of information makes everyone here better."

2: Career victories at Kansas for Jeff Gordon, the most of any driver in the Chase

99.4: Driver rating for Mark Martin at Kansas

123.1: Driver rating for Jimmie Johnson at Kansas, the highest of any driver in the Chase

Check out Joey Logano's scary wreck at Dover last weekend. Brutal stuff. It's amazing he walked away without so much as a scratch.

The banking in the turns at Dover is ridiculously steep for such a short track -- 24 degrees, and Logano just tumbled down the face of one of the turns. Amazing stuff.