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Johnson's victory gets Hendrick Motorsports rolling after slow start

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - For the first seven races this season, a car not owned by Hendrick Motorsports went to Victory Lane.

All seven times, people wondered what was wrong with NASCAR's best team.

In the eighth race, Jimmie Johnson shut everybody up.

With a gutsy call from crew chief Chad Knaus to not stop for gas when the rest of the leaders were too scared to stretch their fuel to the finish, the two-time defending series champion finally gave Hendrick his first win of the season Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway. It was the deepest into the season owner Rick Hendrick had gone without one of his cars winning since 2003, when Jeff Gordon won the ninth event of the year.

'We're back,' Johnson said from Victory Lane.

And that's what every rival driver had been dreading.

As speculation mounted week after week as to what was wrong with the Hendrick cars, the rest of the field cautioned against writing them off. Hendrick drivers won 18 of 36 races last season and finished first and second in the final series standings. The drivers who eat, drink and sleep racing knew the slow start to 2008 was a fluke, and Hendrick would be a factor before all is said on this new season.

'You wake the sleeping giant,' warned Jeff Burton last month, 'they're going to be hard to beat. There's no getting around that.'

Nor is there any getting around the record book, which indicates that if Hendrick's four teams are indeed back on their game, they'll be very hard to beat over the next month of racing.

Following a week off for the Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR heads to four tracks where Hendrick cars historically have been very, very successful with 46 career victories. Hendrick drivers have won 10 times at Talladega, nine times at Richmond, 12 times at Darlington and 15 times at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

A year ago, Hendrick drivers went 7-for-7 at those four tracks.

But just as he's done since the celebration last season ended, Hendrick cautioned that nothing is automatic over the coming month.

'We definitely have some tracks where we've been successful, but that's in the past,' Hendrick said. 'We can't sit back and rely on that to carry us through.'

Johnson's win was certainly proof.

SideBar: NASCAR

What: Aaron's 499

When: April 27, 1:30 p.m.

Where: Talladega Superspeedway

TV: Fox