Jimmie Johnson closes the deal

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Rick Hendrick was pretty concise at summarizing all these years of winning, and then all these months of waiting.

"I can't believe we've won 200 of these things," he said Saturday night. And then again, "I can't believe it took this long after 199."

Jimmie Johnson finally got Hendrick Motorsports to a 200th Cup win, over the hump that had lasted since last Oct. 9. Since Johnson's last win, at Kansas, HMS had held at 199 wins for a frustrating 16 races.

"We've run so good this year," Hendrick said, "and we've had such bad luck."

"We've been awfully close to winning the 200th for him the last month or two, and I'm just happy to be able to close the deal," Johnson said.

"My mind goes back to the early days of Hendrick Motorsports," Johnson continued, "and people who won the early races and worked on his early cars.

"I think of Harry Hyde [Hendrick's first crew chief], Tim Richmond [the wild, young star who died of AIDS], Geoff Bodine [who got Hendrick's first win, at Martinsville in 1985], Kenny Schrader and a lot of people over the years who put a lot of time and effort into this organization."

"You think you're going to get there," Hendrick said of last October when Johnson brought him to the brink, "and then you think you're never going to win another one when you get to 199."

Hendrick is the second team to reach 200 wins in Cup but is still far behind Petty Enterprises' 268.

Tony Stewart, who gave the dominant Johnson what appeared to be the last real challenge in the Southern 500, said he never really had a chance.

"To win a 200th race, you don't want to back into a win," said Stewart, who wound up third after running just short on fuel. "And I mean, they dominated it and took it the way they should."

Johnson led the most laps, 134 of the 368, and easily handled both Stewart and Denny Hamlin, who finished second, in the late stages.

Stewart's team may be a satellite to the Hendrick juggernaut, but still "I was trying to postpone it [the HMS lull] by another week, by trying to get to Jimmie. And I just couldn't do it. The closer I got to him, the tighter I got. And that was one of the best runs we'd had. Still I wasn't strong enough to deal with him. He had plenty of car left. He was just riding and trying to save fuel."

It was Johnson who at first appeared dangerously close on fuel during their late duel, what with all the radio chatter from crew chief Chad Knaus that they were short and Johnson should save every drop he could.

And Stewart, usually a fuel-mileage maestro, was pressuring Johnson in the waning laps.

"In a fuel-mileage race, when you see that 14 [Stewart] there, you always second-guess yourself," Johnson said. "He's just so good at it, I was really concerned."

But it was Stewart who was bitten just before the green-white-checkered restart.

"The fuel-pressure light was blinking when we got one to go, and I had to go down to the apron," Stewart said. "It caught on the backstretch, but then we got just past the center of 3 and 4 and the light was down to 20 pounds again. So it laid down all the way along the front stretch [on the restart], and we lost second because of it."

Denny Hamlin shot past the sputtering Stewart into second place, but it was too late for Hamlin to mount a threat of his own.

We've been awfully close to winning the 200th for him the last month or two, and I'm just happy to be able to close the deal.

-- Jimmie Johnson

But Hamlin wasn't so sure that Johnson's car was as peerless as Stewart thought.

"I thought the 56 could probably give him a good run," Hamlin said of Martin Truex Jr., who was strong in the second half of the race but pitted himself out of the lead during a caution that fell on Lap 298 and didn't challenge for the lead again.

"When our car was best, we could probably hang with him [Johnson]," Hamlin said.

But nobody did for long.

Thus ended doldrums whose must frustrating single day for Hendrick had been April 1 at Martinsville. Johnson and Jeff Gordon had appeared ready to duel at the end to give Hendrick his 200th at the site of his first, but both got wrecked on a green-white-checkered restart.

Most of all, Martinsville was the track where a Hendrick team plane was headed for a race on Oct. 4, 2004, when it crashed into a Virginia mountainside, killing all 10 people aboard -- all friends or relatives of Hendrick.

"I thought we had it a few races back," Hendrick said. "Martinsville was the one that I thought would mean so much. With the first one [victory] there, and the accident there, it was special.

"But tonight I was thinking about Darlington, and how special this place is."

Darlington Raceway is, after all, NASCAR's oldest superspeedway and the Southern 500 is its oldest 500-mile race, dating back to 1950.

But there was one other element. Young Rick Hendrick, aspiring entrepreneur, "had a little Chevy dealership [his first] over at [nearby] Bennettsville. My wife and I drove over here, and about a third of the way through the race we drove into the track, parked behind the stands, didn't buy a ticket, but sat in the stands and watched the race."

He wasn't a millionaire then and was only beginning to think of starting a NASCAR team.

"It's been a lot of years since we did that," Hendrick said.