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Good Times Roll Into Bad Times for GM

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 30 2009
Photo Courtesy of NASCAR  

 Photo Courtesy of NASCAR

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Talk about your buzz kills.

Yesterday afternoon – and presumably well into the evening – NASCAR team-owner Rick Hendrick and his guys were brows deep in a party mode. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson had won his first Sprint Cup race of the season and the team’s three other drivers had finished in the top eight at Martinsville Speedway.

Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon finished fourth to strengthen his lead in the series point standings while previously beleaguered Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were able to issue rare smiles and happy words.

It all took place on the 25th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports’ first victory in the series.

That’s not all. 

Seven of the top 10 finishers at Martinsville were driving GM cars and Chevy blew open the race-within-the-race manufacturers championship.

All was golden for Hendrick and General Motors.

On Sunday at Martinsville, that is. 

Monday dawned gray as the world economy itself.

The news out of Detroit was bad: GM chief Rick Wagoner was being forced to resign.

And the news out of Washington was even worse: The Obama administration said it is not satisfied that GM is making significant strides in turning its economic situation around.

GM and Chrysler were given 60 more days to turn the multi-billion-dollar tide or they would cut off from taxpayer bailout funds and possibly be forced into bankruptcy.

Can champagne be sponged up off and put back in the bottle? 

It had to be flowing like crazy at Martinsville.

There was the feeling that Hendrick in general and Johnson specifically had shifted into the mode of domination which many had predicted for the team this season; a season which features the addition of Martin and hopes that Earnhardt Jr. has adapted to the HMS way of racing.

Johnson had as much confidence falling off him as confetti after the race. “You know, you can’t take things for granted,” Johnson said. “We’re very relieved to get the first one of the season. Hopefully there are many more to come.  I think it’s a huge confidence booster for the new guys that are on our race team. It’s a confidence booster for Chad (Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief) and I. We didn’t have an easy day today.  We had to stay together as a team, work through a lot of changes, a loss of track position to make the car better and fight for the front, count on pit stops, count on good driving.  It took a team effort today. I’m very proud of that.”

And, Johnson added, “At the end, when I was trying to get back by Denny (Hamlin, who finished second), it was in my mind that it would be awfully special to win for Rick here and win the 25th anniversary of his first win.” 

Hendrick spent the pre-race hours getting his picture taken at Martinsville with current drivers and distinguished HMS alumni.

He told stories about Martinsville.

Good ones, like how one time he and Bobby Allison and Joe Gibbs drove to the track in a rental car together, Allison steering with his knees because he had a donut in one hand and coffee in the other. They ended up abandoning the rental car after it got stalled in a traffic jam and had to hitch rides to the track.

Horrible ones, like the fateful autumn day when a team plane crashed, killing 10 people, including Hendrick’s son and brother.

But even that story, grimly offered as it was, served as an essential counterpoint to the wonderful day.

Late in the day, the first whisper of buzz kill entered the conversation when Hendrick was told that Wagoner might be stepping down.

“Well, first of all, I hope that’s not true,” Hendrick said. “Wagoner is a great leader. I would hope he’s still there. But it’s important to the brand to win. I mean, that’s the heritage of Chevrolet. You know, they’ve been awful good to us. They’ve been awful good to me over the 25 years. We’re proud to carry that banner. But I have not heard that, so if that’s been reported, that’s news to me.”

The whispers became shouts on Monday morning. Wagoner out and GM perhaps headed toward a collision with bankruptcy.

Not good news for a team which races GM and products and is owned by a man who sells GM products.

There is that old saying in racing about winning on Sunday and selling on Monday. From the look of it, Hendrick and all the other GM teams had better start winning like crazy and soon.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, March 30 2009
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