NASCAR

Hendrick goes from ice cold to red hot

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CONCORD, N.C. (AP)

After months of wondering when any Hendrick Motorsports car would win again, NASCAR's powerhouse program is on a major roll heading into the Coca-Cola 600.

Five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson broke a 16-race victory drought this month at Darlington Raceway for Hendrick Motorsports' 200th win, then won the All-Star race Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Throw in a Sprint Showdown victory by Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and a win in the Pit Crew Challenge by Johnson's No. 48 team and it's a non-stop party for owner Rick Hendrick.

''The company,'' Johnson said Thursday, ''is still on a high from the 200th win and the All-Star win just kicked it up another notch.''

That could be bad news for the rest of NASCAR, which thought it might be gaining on Hendrick's dominance.

Johnson collected the program's 199th win last October at Kansas as he chased a sixth straight championship. But Johnson came up short of the title, losing to Tony Stewart. None of Hendrick's high-power drivers - four-time champion Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne are Johnson's teammates - could break through this season until Johnson took the checkered flag at Darlington and touched off a party that hasn't stopped.

Neither has the winning.

''Things have been pretty good,'' said Kahne, 16th in drivers' points. ''Then after Jimmie won that 200th, that got everybody even more excited.''

Johnson doesn't see why that can't continue Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600. He qualified third behind the Richard Petty Motorsports duo of Aric Amirola and Marcos Ambrose. Kahne qualified seventh, Earnhardt 12th and Gordon 23rd.

Johnson has won nine times at the 1.5-mile track, three 600s, three of the 500-mile fall race and three All-Star events. ''We are excited to get on the track today and through the course of the weekend,'' he said. ''We feel like we will be a threat to win.''

And giving Hendrick even more to celebrate.

This week, the car owner hosted a party in Charlotte headlined by country music superstar Brad Paisley. Hendrick's current crop of star drivers was on hand along with others who brought his machines to victory lane through the years like Geoff Bodine, Mark Martin and Kyle Busch.

''It's a huge accomplishment for our people and I'm really proud of them,'' Hendrick said. ''You know, you need to stop and celebrate something like, this because they don't come along too often.''

Johnson said it was fun to watch Hendrick kick back and revel in the achievement. ''I'm really proud of him to sit and enjoy the 200th win and savor it and spend some time in the moment,'' Johnson said. ''It's not like him to do that type of thing.''

That's for sure.

Johnson recalled how during the Darlington celebration two weeks back, Hendrick told him that now they'd gotten to 200, ''let's get 250.''

It's a focus that's kept Hendrick Motorsports clicking off the wins since Bodine collected the program's first victory at Martinsville in 1984.

Hendrick's far from done this season. He expects to follow through on the goal he set before the season that he wanted all four of his cars in the season-ended Chase for a Championship. They've got some work ahead for that to happen, though.

Earnhardt's No. 88 sits third behind points leader Greg Biffle and second-place Matt Kenseth. Johnson is fifth. Then comes Kahne, 54 points out of 10th place. The one struggling most this season is Gordon, the usually steady former champion stung with a several problems that have him way back in 24th and most likely needing a couple of race wins to claim a wildcat sport to the year-end shootout.

Hendrick said he's never had so many races get away from such talented group like Gordon's No. 24 team and Kahne's No. 5. ''Between Kasey and Jeff Gordon, probably the rottenest luck I've had in my racing career,'' Hendrick said. ''I mean, I can't even remember as many flat tires or wrecks or Kasey is running third on the last lap and gets shoved into the wall. We have had some freak things break on the car.''

Gordon has tried to stay positive through the problem. ''You can only do that for so long, but we're still doing it,'' he said. ''So hopefully, we'll see the results.''

Current Hendrick drivers have combined for 14 victories at Charlotte. Earnhardt looked like he'd make that 15 last May until he ran out of gas while leading the race on the final lap to finish seventh.

The way things are going for Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson wouldn't be surprised if he and his teammates were all fighting for the win come Sunday night - just like Rick Hendrick wants.

''I'm sure we will be reminded of that here before long,'' Johnson said.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne

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