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Johnson fuels Hendrick Motorsports' dominance

5/7/2007 - NASCAR

RICHMOND, Va. -- Chad Knaus was making his way down pit road to join driver Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane on Sunday when a member of Kurt Busch's crew tapped him on the shoulder.

"Heck of a job!" the crew member told Johnson's crew chief.

There was as much frustration on the crew member's face as there was admiration as he pushed Busch's car toward the garage.

His driver worked hard all day just to get a fifth-place finish. Johnson made it look easy as he won his fourth race of the Nextel Cup season and collected his seventh top-5, in 10 races.

Hendrick Motorsports in general is making it look easy.

If Sprint Nextel management has any doubt about what to rename the Nextel Cup series next season, they should consider the HMS Series.

The organization owns NASCAR's premier series right now.

Johnson's victory at Richmond International Raceway gave HMS seven wins in the last eight races and all four wins in Car of Tomorrow events.

Teammates Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon were second and fourth, respectfully, giving HMS its fourth first-second finish of the season.

In the other three COT races HMS drivers were first and third at Bristol, first, second and fourth at Martinsville, and first and fourth at Phoenix.

That's good enough to have Gordon comfortably first in the points standings, followed by Johnson in second and Kyle Busch in sixth.

With five of the 10 races in the Championship Chase on COT tracks, NASCAR might as well hand the trophy to owner Rick Hendrick now.

"I do know with what we've got going right now our team is in full stride," Knaus said. "But this is a circular sport. You get your team to the top and then you fall to some degree.

"What you've got to do is make sure when you're at the top you don't get too full of yourself so when you do fall it doesn't break you apart."

There are no signs of that. If anything, Sunday's dominance in a race postponed from Saturday night because of rain showed just how strong HMS is.

Johnson had only one top-10 finish in his previous 15 races at RIR, and was 23rd or worse in four of the last five races. Gordon was 31st or worse in the last four races here.

And yet Gordon sat on the pole and led a race-high 114 laps, and Johnson qualified fourth and led 105.

"We've got to be proud of that," said Gordon, who saw his streak of consecutive wins end. "This has been one of our worst tracks. To come away with a top-5 finish says what kind of improvements we've made."

Third-place finisher Denny Hamlin will concede that HMS has four of the best drivers in the garage, not leaving out 18th-place Casey Mears, and four of the best teams.

But he doesn't believe the organization's COT cars are any better than those he and Tony Stewart are driving for Joe Gibbs Racing.

"We're as good as they are," he said. "We're better at times. They've got the wins because they haven't made mistakes."

Hamlin's got a point. He and Stewart have led 785 of a possible 1,716 laps in the COT races. Johnson, Gordon and Busch have led only 549.

But the HMS drivers lead where it counts: 7-0 in wins.

"It's tough," Hamlin said. "I'm looking in my front windshield and I see all Hendrick cars and then me. ... We're as good as them. It's just they seem to be in the right place at the right time."

The right place on Sunday was up front. Johnson, Busch and Gordon led 246 of 400 laps. The only other drivers in their league were Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

Harvick led 105 laps before being involved in a pit-road accident with David Ragan that damaged the front end of his car. Busch charged from near the back to lead 27 laps before making an untimely pit stop that set him back in the field.

"It's not easy, that's for sure," Busch said. "Denny alluded to it pretty well. We've got great race teams. I'd say four of the best 10 or 12 drivers out there. It's hard to beat the best drivers with the best equipment with the best teams."

Even so, Johnson is surprised HMS has been this dominant.

"We've had a lot of great competition from other teams," he said. "I am surprised at the end of the day Hendrick is still as the front and we're taking trophies home."

They're taking so many home that Johnson and his teammates were questioned whether it hurts the sport the same way some believed baseball was hurt by the dominance of the New York Yankees.

"We're just doing our jobs," said Johnson, the defending Cup champion.

Asked if there was sympathy for the other teams struggling to catch up, Johnson smiled and said, "I'm not sure sympathy is the word I want to use. We worked too hard to get to this point. We're off to a great start, but when you get into the Chase it is its own animal.

"To keep it simple, we won't overlook things."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.