CONCORD, N.C.: It was a long cross-country flight home for Rick Hendrick after the team owner watched victory slip away for two of his drivers at Auto Club Speedway.
Jimmie Johnson was leading in the closing laps until a tire failure sent him to pit road and cost him his first win of the season. His misfortune appeared to be Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon’s gain, though, as Gordon inherited the lead from Johnson.
But as Gordon cruised toward the finish line, a spin by Clint Bowyer with two laps remaining jumbled everything. Gordon restarted in traffic, had trouble on the restart, and finished 13th. Johnson was 24th after leading a race-high 104 laps.
“It’s hard. Those are really hard,” Hendrick said. “That was a rough ride home Sunday night, probably as disappointed as I’ve ever been to have two cars so good and come away with nothing.”
Hendrick said he’d only felt worse once before, following the 2012 spring race at Martinsville, when both Johnson and Gordon were wrecked on a restart while lined up side-by-side set to race each other for the win. The two had dominated the race and were both vying to be the driver to give Hendrick Motorsports its 200th victory.
On hand that day were the widows of Hendrick’s brother and a DuPont executive, who were at the track for the first time since 10 people were killed when a Hendrick plane crashed en route to Martinsville.
“The only race that I can remember that was as bad as [California] was Martinsville when the restart, we got both of them taken out,” Hendrick said. “There was just no way we were going to lose that race, and we did.”
By the time he landed in Charlotte late Sunday, Hendrick said he was already thinking about the next race, which is Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.
Johnson and Gordon lead the series among active drivers with eight wins each at Martinsville, and Gordon won there in October. Although both drivers are still seeking their first win of the year, Hendrick feels both will rebound from the disappointment of Fontana on Sunday.
“I can handle if you are fast and your cars are really strong and you are not searching for speed, you can kind of come back and write it off and say ‘That’s racin,’?” Hendrick said. “But if you are coming home and you are running 15th and you don’t know how to get in the top 10, then those are tough days. We didn’t do anything wrong [at California]. The breaks didn’t go our way.”
Icons from the worlds of NASCAR and music came together at Charlotte Motor Speedway this week when Dale Earnhardt Jr. unveiled one of Elvis Presley’s most prized vehicles.
The 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III is known to be the last car Elvis drove. He was photographed driving the car into the gates of Graceland just hours before he died. No one else had driven the car since that day until Earnhardt took it for a spin at Charlotte on Tuesday.
The car was unveiled after undergoing an extensive preservation to restore it to the condition it was in when Elvis last drove it in 1976.
“It has never left Graceland. It has been there in the auto museum in Graceland. This car has not been run in 25 years,” said Jack Soden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises. “If we had fully restored it, it would be a 1973 Stutz. But leaving that little bit of that DNA of Elvis — the original seats in the condition they are in, little nicks here and there — that makes it Elvis’ and we wanted to preserve that.”
The car will be on display during next week’s AutoFair at the speedway.
“It’s pretty incredible to sit in it, they haven’t really touched the interior of the car since he drove it,” Earnhardt said. “I’m a big fan, and knowing how big of an entertainer he was and how much he meant to so many people, it really meant a lot to me to be able to drive that car.”
Earnhardt considers himself a big Elvis fan, and said he’s got a room dedicated in his house for memorabilia he’s collected — much of it sent to him by fans.
“If I had five minutes with Elvis Presley, you’d definitely want to know some inside stories, what life was like for him personally, what his interests were,” Earnhardt said. “Just general topics like cars and cuisine and records. What’s a guy like him collect? What does he find interesting? What kind of music does he like to sit around and listen to? Stuff like that.”