Hendrick young guns coming of age
Despite a thundering crash into the wall, which rang Jimmie Johnson's bell and sent him home 38th, as well as an eighth-place finish for Jeff Gordon, which was disappointing because the car was a winner before a couple of on-track mishaps, Sunday's run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was an encouraging one for Hendrick Motorsports -- which saw its two younger drivers show their capacity for carrying the torch long after Gordon and Johnson.
Brian Vickers finished third and Kyle Busch saved 10th after what appeared might have been a top-five run. All in all, there were three Hendrick cars among the top 10, and a happy stable after the race.
"The teams are just doing real good," Vickers said of the four-car program. "We've got a lot of momentum behind us and we need to keep it going."
There's little reason to believe the younger teams -- Vickers' No. 25 and Busch's No. 5 squads -- won't keep the momentum moving forward. After notching solid runs at a historic racetrack, both drivers were more focused on what they could have done to make things better and how they intend to improve in the future rather than dwell on why Sunday's run earned them a pat on the back.
"I wanted that win so bad," Vickers said. "This Chevy was awesome all day. That was all I had. The car got tight there at the end but the GMAC Garnier Chevrolet and the pit guys did a good job. Third here is real special. Indianapolis is an awesome racetrack. A win here would be awesome, but third is nice."
"It would have been a really good run except we changed three tires instead of four so that kind of hurt us," Busch added. "We got three tires instead of two or four and that just doesn't work. I was hanging on there at the end. It got real, real loose so I tried knocking the valence in under caution on the rumble strips and after that we got a little bit tight and I about knocked the wall down every corner and then I kept losing spots. That's all I had."
For Vickers, it was his fourth consecutive top-15 finish, and second top-five in four races.
"This team has really come around and I'm so proud of everybody," he said. "It takes everybody from the engine shop, to the bodies to [crew chief] Lance [McGrew] and all the guys to really make it happen."
And while what happened on Sunday was a huge shot in the arm for Vickers' entire team, he said the guys already knew things were coming together. In his opinion, third place is worth a smile and good night's rest, but come morning it's back to work. He doesn't want third place at Indy to be a highlight in his career.
"I think it will be a special race for me," Vickers said of how he'll remember his latest Brickyard run. "[But] hopefully this one won't even come in my memory when I think about all the wins."
Busch was similarly unsated after his 10th-place run.
"It's too bad because we didn't finish nowhere near where we should have," he lamented.
Busch believed he could run with the top-five cars -- even if he couldn't catch race-winner Tony Stewart or runner-up Kasey Kahne, who were by far the fastest cars on the track over the closing laps. But on his final pit stop, several errors combined with one speedy crewman resulted in a rare three-tire pit stop, which left the No. 5 car off balance and difficult to guide through Indy's four, flat corners.
"It was a combination of things," crew chief Alan Gustafson said of the final stop. "We were stopped there and the [No.] 0 [car] really chopped our box there and clipped the jackman so that he was late getting to that right rear tire. And then the tire changer set his gun down and got out of his rhythm and knocked some lug nuts off there.
"At that time I saw that we were getting ready to get eat up by 20 spots so I was calling for two [tires] but the front guy had a good stop going so he already had that left front tire off. We got that back on and dropped the jack."
Gustafson said the crew at home, as well as the crew on the road, all contributed to making the car so strong on Sunday that Busch nearly nabbed a top-five. But he also said that the final stop would frustrate him for a while because it was the sole reason the team didn't enjoy that top-five finish.
"I am encouraged," he said. "I'm encouraged with the performance of the cars and with the team. We've got 90 percent of it. I guess that's the frustrating part. Maybe it would be a little more frustrating if you didn't have 90 percent. I don't think we could beat Tony or [Kahne]. We probably could have ran with [Vickers] and [Jeremy Mayfield, who finished fourth], but you never know how they're going to shake out.
"We took a top-four car there and made a 10th-place car, but we'll fix it and get it right."
As encouraging as it was to see the younger drivers at Hendrick do so well, it was also nice to see the veteran get back into his groove. Amidst a severely inconsistent year, where Gordon has only three top-10s in his last 10 races [and no top-fives], Gordon said he was happy to bring his No. 24 Chevy home eighth.
He said his finish might have been higher if not for stalling on pit road after taking two tires and, later in the race, making contact with Mike Bliss' car. Still, he was pleased with the car his crew provided and was encouraged that the misfortunes he's gotten used to did not bite him too hard on Sunday.
If he can put together another couple of runs like that, Gordon will feel a lot better, though.
"I'm not going to count on anything until we go through a few more of these weeks," said Gordon, who is 14th in the points standings. "Hopefully we can get some top fives [and] top 10s out of those as well."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.