Martin leads Hendrick victory parade

Not since Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird donned the red, white and blue to humiliate the world on a basketball court in Barcelona has one team dominated its competition quite like Hendrick Motorsports is doing now.

OK, maybe the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, but that’s it.

Mark Martin gave Rick Hendrick another win Saturday night – the organization’s fourth in 11 races this season – taking a brutally long and brutally tough Southern 500. Rounding out the top five were Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon – all driving cars supplied by Hendrick.

Oh, and part-timer Brad Keselowski, also driving a Hendrick car, wound up seventh.

The only Hendrick driver missing from the victory parade was Dale Earnhardt Jr., but that’s a whole other story. Right now, this one’s about the success, and Hendrick has it.

Gordon sits atop the standings, followed by Stewart (part of the Hendrick-affiliated Stewart-Haas Racing) in second, Johnson in fourth and Newman (also part of SHR) in eighth. After a bad-luck start, Martin has moved up to 12th and climbing.

Yes, it still is early, as Johnson said afterward, and yes there still is Kyle Busch to deal with. But until another team proves otherwise, there’s no reason to think anyone will show up with anything good enough to fend off the entire Hendrick arsenal.

“When I go over to that shop, I feel like I’ve gone to NASA and they’re getting me prepared to go to the moon,” Martin said. “Every detail is handled as if it’s the most important thing in our race. It’s just really, really cool. It’s quite an experience for me to get to be a part of it at this point in my career.”

This coming from a guy who spent 19 years driving for Jack Roush, an engineer by trade who carries around an eye loupe so he can inspect every spark plug that goes into his race cars.

It’s not just that Hendrick is better. That’s been on display regularly as Johnson has cruised to each of the last three titles. It’s the separation. Since 2006, Hendrick has won 38 races. The closest challenger is Roush, who has won 26 with five cars to Hendrick’s four.

The addition of Stewart, who this season took control of half of Stewart-Haas Racing, a satellite team to Hendrick, is tantamount to rolling back the clock and adding LeBron James to the original Dream Team lineup.

Yes, there were other challengers Saturday night. Greg Biffle led the most laps until he slapped the wall hard; Martin Truex Jr. ran up front but couldn’t get there when it mattered most; and rookie Joey Logano turned in a surprise performance that had many wondering if a rookie actually could win at Darlington, something that has never been done in the track’s 60-year history.

Still, had any one of them beaten Martin to the checkered flag, it wouldn’t have changed the overall complexion of the top 10.

Junior, of course, will be happy for his teammates, but it had to hurt watching them celebrate while he tries to figure out what went wrong, again. He struggled all night no thanks to two more pit-road mishaps – one his fault, one a crew member’s – before capping things off with a late-race spinout that relegated him to a 27th-place finish.

If there’s a silver lining for Junior, it’s that the focus this week won’t be on him, but rather on the revelation that came just prior to Saturday night’s race that Jeremy Mayfield had been suspended indefinitely after failing a drug test.

Scrutiny of Earnhardt will take a back seat this week to talk of NASCAR’s drug policy and Mayfield’s future.

“We’ve heard about other [drug] instances outside of the Cup Series,” Gordon said. “I think it’s just very unfortunate for the sport and for Jeremy and for everybody because it definitely puts a black eye on it.”

Mayfield insists the failed test is a result of a combination of prescribed and over-the-counter drugs reacting together. Whatever the case, chances are slim this has anything to do with steroids.

No, the only performance enhancement that’s going on in NASCAR right now is inside the Hendrick garage.

Now the tour heads home to Charlotte for next weekend’s All-Star race, a field that could just include Hendrick drivers and nearly be complete. They are, after all, NASCAR’s Dream Team.