Hendrick's unmatched NASCAR dynasty shows no signs of wear
Hendrick Motorsports first to have three teams atop the Cup Series podium
Richard Hendrick's success story began in 1984 with one car and no sponsor
The rest of NASCAR fears the Hendrick dynasty isn't likely to end soon
Rick Hendrick's silver anniversary in NASCAR is now officially his most successful, a dynasty unmatched in racing. With Jimmie Johnson's fourth straight title, it's the fifth for the organization this decade and ninth overall, tying the sport's all-time record for car owners.
For a guy who had one car and no sponsor when he first showed up on the NASCAR scene in 1984, it's a pretty hefty accomplishment. But his secret comes packaged with the comfort he's never alone.
"He's got one requisite, and that is we race together," said Hendrick GM Marshall Carlson on Sunday night. "That's absolutely imperative. There're 500 teammates back at Hendrick Motorsports who have built that place, and every single one of us owes an incredible debt of gratitude to Rick for his leadership."
It's the "teamwork" mantra that's made the difference for HMS, pulling together in a sport based on individuality. In the 1980s, winning teams like Junior Johnson's would have two-car operations fighting each other tooth and nail. Working together was defined as not spinning each other into the wall before the checkered flag.
So it took years to change the culture of racers taught to think for only themselves. Even during Hendrick's first run of dominance -- with Gordon from 1995 to '98 -- crew chief Ray Evernham had a knack of keeping certain secrets under his hat. So when he left at the end of the '99 season, it was no surprise the team struggled for a time, winning just one title in four years before Johnson came onto the scene in 2002. Added to the same shop as Gordon's No. 24, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were given a clear message by Hendrick: sharing is caring.
"We were still under the same guidelines as sharing information," Gordon said. "But the whole organization was not put together the way it is now. We didn't have a network, we didn't have the shops the way they are now. And also, I think that one of the big influences was when the 48 came on and the 24 shared everything with them seamlessly in that way, that's what really changed things.
"It gave a bigger advantage to Hendrick Motorsports as a whole."
Still, today's success was a long time in coming. From 2002 to '05, neither the No. 24 nor the No. 48 won a title, falling below expectations for a team accustomed to winning so much. It was a difficult time, with rivals Roush and Gibbs running circles around a program that, while successful, stopped short of getting over that title hump.
"Chemistry is everything," Johnson says. "And it took us a couple of years to really gel, and even bad moments, as in any relationship. When you go through some tough moments, you figure out what each other's about. The bad ones we've probably learned more through those than anything."
The key decision came after a 2005 season spent with Johnson and Knaus at each other's throats. Right then, Hendrick could have easily stepped in and separated the two, instead he exercised what so many in today's ADD world fail to achieve: patience. Forcing the two to hug it out, he was determined to never have an Evernham-like departure happen within an organization priding itself on keeping core personnel.
Four years later, that decision to mediate instead of separate has paid off in spades. Eighteen wins and an astounding 55 top 10s in 60 Chase races have left Johnson in a class of his own, and teammate Gordon hasn't been far behind, making four straight Chases and setting a record with 30 top-10 finishes in 2007. Yet even during that run of success, team members say it was the owner's ability to trust the shop that proved the key.
"Rick builds an environment where extremely talented, incredibly driven people are able to come in and race the way they want to race," Carlson said. "Chad builds his team, and he and Steve together build that 24 and 48 shop. We're a crew chief-led company. Jimmie and Chad are the tip of the spear, and everyone behind them is support. They have total autonomy to build the people behind them [without interference]."
That's the gold standard in a nutshell at HMS, where success gets measured as much by how you actually go about accomplishing your goals as achieving them. The emphasis is on selling the attitude of working together and unifying as one -- even though just one car gets left standing in Victory Lane at the end of the day.
"When you've got everybody working together, it makes a big difference," Hendrick said earlier this weekend, before leaving the track for North Carolina to see his 29-year-old ailing niece, Alesha Gainey, undergo a liver transplant during the race. "That's the part that I'm so proud of, that [Jimmie Johnson's crew chief] Chad Knaus in a motorsports meeting on Tuesday will give [Mark Martin's crew chief] Alan Gustafson credit that he got the setup on Saturday from Alan, went out and won the race.
"They'll go out and compete against each other. That won't change. But at the end of the race, they know that what they've done all year has got us here."
Camaraderie has led to stability, as the No. 24 and No. 48 teams of Gordon and Johnson are now the only two with the same driver and sponsor combinations since 2002. An ability to stay the course, keeping from drawing their guns in anger, speaks volumes in an era in which the pressure to perform causes far too many to pull the trigger.
"What makes the No. 48 strong is the two of them [Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus] have been together for a long time," says Denny Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford. "You're able to work on issues that aren't elementary standard issues. You can work on really focusing in.
"Mature teams that work together to really work on trivial problems that you're faced with over the course of the season [as opposed to major ones] are going to be the best and continue on."
"I feel it's an evolution over time of them working together and creating every little advantage they possibly can," adds Ryan Newman, whose team gets engine and chassis support from Hendrick Motorsports. "As much as you and create those advantages and keep them together as the evolution of the sport happens, the stronger you will be."
It certainly helps the key players have New York Yankees-type money coming in to build the resources around them. One of the challenges going forward for the rest of the sport is how to combat that, as the organization owns more wind tunnel time, electronic simulation engineers and overall depth than any other. But as we've seen with the Yanks at times, all the money in the world means nothing if you don't have the right personnel running the ship.
"We talk a lot about widgets, about technology, about gizmos, and test fixtures and all these things," says Carlson. "That stuff's only as good as it is while it's fresh. And it's going to get stale pretty quick unless you've got really, really sharp people pushing every bit of the car technology-wise."
"It's good people with great attitudes," adds Martin, who just joined the team as a full-time driver this year. "When I deal with everyone there, no matter what it is, everyone that works there that I have dealt with on a personal basis had a little bit of, you know, the little qualities of being interested in doing a better job. What is it, how can we do this better? There's just no arrogance. Just good communication and people skills."
So with the depth of personnel, how do you challenge Hendrick's run at the top? It's a difficult answer, and most drivers spent the weekend scratching their heads. NASCAR tried to address the issue with a four-team limit, but how can they keep all four teams from working together as one? Can you imagine if the entire AFC East conspired to beat Indianapolis, putting their best people on the field to stop Peyton Manning? Chances are the Colts wouldn't end that game undefeated.
So for now, this unique brand of sportsmanship stays legal -- and this unique phenomenon leaves the entire garage virtually outmatched. Only Hamlin -- whose three DNFs left him 317 points behind Johnson at the finish -- seemed to show confidence this weekend his team could go blow-for-blow with Johnson in 2010. But everyone else, while respectful, also seems out of answers as to how to compete.
"We're in a predicament, I believe," said Greg Biffle, who drives for Roush Racing, another multi-car giant who won two championships earlier this decade. "We can't test anywhere, our simulation is not proving to be enough; otherwise, we'd be competing and winning races now.
"So I don't know what we're going to do to be more competitive next year, because if we knew, we'd be doing it right now."
So are NASCAR's Yankees destined to win forever? Many think five, six, perhaps seven championships in a row lie ahead. But in listening to the team's veteran driver Martin -- who has finished runner-up in the title Chase five times -- Hendrick detractors are offered a beacon of hope.
"The level of your competitiveness is cyclical," Martin says. "You're not always on top. You're not always on the bottom. And Hendrick does a good job of getting knocked off the top a little less than most. But it's still a moving target.
"And we've got our challenge on our hands for next year."
Yet it's that last line where Martin has it wrong. The biggest challenge next year actually lies with everybody else.