Does owner Rick Hendrick belong in next Hall of Fame class?
Owner Rick Hendrick is among 25 nominees for NASCAR's next Hall of Fame class
Hendrick has 10 Cup titles, 200 victories to his name but wasn't a founding father
Will Hendrick make this year's Hall of Fame class? We'll find out on Wednesday
CONCORD, N.C. -- The ride was anything but graceful even with one of NASCAR's best drivers as the chauffeur.
With boyish enthusiasm, 62-year-old car owner Rick Hendrick swung his right leg through the driver's side window opening of Jimmie Johnson's car and perched atop the edge. Hendrick's left leg dangled inches off the ground as Johnson drove down the frontstretch, saluting his boss, after winning Saturday night's All-Star Race.
The smile on Hendrick's face masked the difficulty of the performance. Hendrick's right leg pinned Johnson's left knee, preventing the five-time Sprint Cup champion from reaching the clutch and slowing the car. Letting off the gas in first gear without engaging the clutch causes the car to jerk. Johnson feared the car might buck Hendrick if he eased off the accelerator, so he went faster than he wanted. Hendrick held on for the magical ride.
"That was the dumbest thing I've done ever in racing,'' Hendrick said afterward with a grin. "I may have done some smart things, but that was the dumbest one.''
It is because of those smart things accomplished over more than a quarter century in NASCAR that he is among 25 nominees for the next Hall of Fame class. After discussions, testimonials and debates Wednesday, voters, including myself, will receive a ballot with all the nominees listed. We will mark the box next to the five individuals we believe should be inducted.
Those nominees (24 men and one woman) represent a cross-section of the sport from its early days to today. They include four drivers who won two championships each in what is now Cup and four more who each won a championship prior to that. Others range from the sport's pioneers on and off the track to those who altered the sport, including the first African-American to win a race in NASCAR's top series.
One name that will likely create a quandary for some voters: Hendrick.
In the Hall of Fame's first three years, voters honored the sport's superstars. But where do they go now? Do they honor the sport's founders? That's what Richard Petty, inducted in the inaugural Hall of Fame class, suggested before the first class was selected. It's an idea some fans favor.
If so, that excludes Hendrick.
Is that right?
Some might say that Hendrick must wait because he's still building his resume. Yet, how much more does he need to add? His teams have won a record 10 Cup titles. Johnson gave the organization its 200th victory earlier this month at Darlington. Hendrick's team has won 10 Southern 500s, nine Coca-Cola 600s and six Daytona 500s.
If Hendrick were retired with similar credentials, he likely would already be in the Hall of Fame. Instead, there's a chance he might have to wait his turn -- whenever that is.
While he wasn't there in those early days, he's had a profound impact on the sport since becoming an owner in 1984. How much should that count when voters make their decisions?
He showed that multi-car teams could work in the modern era. His organization changed pit road and the over-the-wall crews. He changed the thinking car owners had of hiring young drivers when he signed Jeff Gordon. Hendrick's success pushed other teams to match him or fall behind.
The car dealer who built this racing empire has had one Hall of Famer drive for him (Darrell Waltrip), a fellow nominee drive for him (Benny Parsons) and future Hall of Famers Jimmie Johnson and Gordon, along with possible candidates Mark Martin, Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine and Terry Labonte. Other possible Hall of Fame candidates who worked for Hendrick include crew chiefs Chad Knaus, Ray Evernham, Harry Hyde and Jeff Hammond.
For those who say that Hendrick bought his success, remember, money doesn't always buy that.
If so, the Portland Trail Blazers, owned by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, would contend for the NBA championship most years. Instead, the team has made it to the NBA Finals only twice since Allen purchased the team in 1988 and never won the title.
If money bought success, Jerry Jones, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, would have more than three Super Bowl titles. Instead, his team has made the playoffs only four of the last 12 years.
The point is that success can't be bought. Not over a long period of time. Hendrick credits his people, but he's probably never been given enough credit for putting together the group he has. Even when a plane crash claimed the lives of family members and team executives in 2004, Hendrick continued to win races and championships.
Johnson gave Hendrick his record seventh All-Star victory Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson's victory also came on the same day that Bill Elliott's son, Chase, a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports, won his first NASCAR race. Chase Elliott won the K&N Pro Series race at Iowa Speedway.
Maybe some day Elliott will come close or even top Johnson's marks at Hendrick Motorsports. It won't be easy, especially with Johnson striving for more.
"I have a great opportunity here with what I've accomplished to get up there and chase down what Gordon has done, what Earnhardt has done, Petty,'' Johnson said. "I want to do that. I think it's going to be very difficult to do. But I want to accomplish that. I'd love to tie their seven championships and I'd love to win eight.''
Without Hendrick, Johnson likely wouldn't have that chance.
"I can go back to when I was racing off-road trucks, watching from afar,'' Johnson said of his admiration for Hendrick Motorsports. "I'd come to the races and I would watch the Hendrick guys walk by, watch Rick walk by. I just wanted to be a part of this team so bad.''
Now, he has a chance to help Hendrick enter the Hall of Fame.
Whether or not Hendrick is voted in this year, he'll look at what he has and relish that.
"At the end of the day, I'm going to treasure the people that I've got to be around and be close to, see superstars like Jimmie Johnson, Chad, Jeff Gordon, all those guys accomplish big things,'' Hendrick said.
Might this be Hendrick's year to accomplish one of those big things and be selected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Should he be penalized for not being a founder of the sport even though he's a pioneer?