Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon: Who Should Get Hendrick's 200th Win at 'Dega?
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We all know the stories by heart at this point in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season.
Hendrick Motorsports is one Sprint Cup victory away from its historic 200th win as an organization.
Jeff Gordon is off to the worst start of his 20-year Sprint Cup career, sitting 17th in the standings through nine races.
And then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., who's winless streak has reached such a point that it resembles a drought not seen since the Great Dust Bowl.
All three of these stories are on a collision course, and the setting is this weekend's Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Talladega in and of itself brings some great story lines to the table this week.
A track known for high speeds, violent crashes and photo finishes, the general consensus among race fans is that the return of pack racing to the high-banks of 'Dega will produce some much-needed excitement for a 2012 Sprint Cup season that has been little more than vanilla.
At the forefront of that conversation is Earnhardt, who is the favorite among many to break the streak that has spanned nearly four years.
But if he is to contend for the victory in Sunday's Aaron's 499, he will have plenty of company at the front, with some of it coming in the form of his Hendrick teammate, Jeff Gordon.
Between the two Hendrick drivers is a combined 11 wins at the largest track on the NASCAR circuit. In fact, during a period of races from 2001-2007, Earnhardt and Gordon combined to win nine of the 13 races at the 2.66-mile oval.
However, the last four years or so have not been kind to either driver when it comes to racing at Talladega. Gordon has not won at the track since 2007, while Earnhardt's last visit to Victory Lane there came in 2004.
In fact, just one of the last eight races at Talladega has been won by a Hendrick driver. That came last Spring when Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by two 0.002 seconds.
But just because Hendrick drivers have had a difficult time finding Victory Lane in recent years at Talladega does not mean they have forgotten how to drive the place. In this race a year ago, all four Hendrick drivers finished in the Top 8.
Should Hendrick Motorsports reclaim its dominance this weekend at the track just a few years removed from being dubbed "The House that Hendrick Built," which dominant 'Dega driver would be most fitting of earning Hendrick his 200th Sprint Cup win?
We'll start with Gordon. The 20-year veteran of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has done it all with Hendrick Motorsports.
Every season of Gordon's Cup career has been spent driving the famous No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Along the way, he has eclipsed the legendary Dale Earnhardt's win total, holding 85 on his career, to go along with four Sprint Cup titles.
Not to mention he's somewhat responsible for the success of a guy named Jimmie Johnson, who he's mentored since his rookie season at Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon may not be the "top dog" at HMS these days, but he's by far the most highly respected member of not only the organization, but possibly of the whole garage area.
But while Gordon may be the most seasoned member of the Hendrick organization, no driver has had to endure more scrutiny than Earnhardt has in his time at HMS.
Since joining Hendrick's team in 2008, Earnhardt has just one win, which came in controversial fashion at Michigan in June '08. Since then, Earnhardt has missed the Chase twice and has heard plenty of harsh words from his critics.
But Earnhardt is experiencing a career renaissance of sorts here in 2012. Through nine races, Earnhardt leads the sport in Top 10s with seven, and sits just five points behind Greg Biffle for the lead, ranking second overall.
Should Earnhardt break through and earn his first win since 2008 at the track his father won on 10 times, it would be a redemption moment not just for him, but for Hendrick himself, who has heard plenty of criticism of his own for bringing in Earnhardt and letting go of Kyle Busch.
Either one of these stories would be great for the sport.
Should Gordon win, it would be a moment where years of loyalty paid off and the driver who has endured it all with a single organization would bring home a milestone for the man who gave him his start.
Should Earnhardt win, it would be a moment where all the criticism he received after a long winless spell would be behind him, and redemption for his years of struggles would finally be thrust upon him in its most glorious form.
And should we be so fortunate as to see one of these stories pan out after 500 miles of racing on Sunday at Talladega, what an ending that would be.
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