NASCAR: Johnson title cements Hendrick Motorsports dynasty
AP Auto Racing Writer
LAS VEGAS (AP) – Even as Jimmie Johnson chased his record fifth consecutive championship, a feat that would have cemented Hendrick Motorsports as the best team in NASCAR history, the owner knew he needed to make some dramatic changes to his organization.
The overall performance wasn’t up to Rick Hendrick’s standards, only one of his four drivers made it to Victory Lane this season, and nothing has snapped Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slump.
So he called a lengthy meeting one day after a sub-par showing at Texas Motor Speedway, and borrowed from Winston Churchill to explain his feelings to his key personnel.
“It’s not enough that we do our best,” Hendrick told the group assembled before him, “sometimes we have to do what’s required.”
It’s a motto Hendrick lives by.
Hendrick masterfully smoothed over a controversial mid-race pit crew swap between Johnson and Jeff Gordon in that Nov. 8 meeting, and challenged the No. 48 team not to back down in their pursuit of points leader Denny Hamlin, who had taken control of the championship race. The end result was a marvelous comeback for the most dominant team of the decade, with Johnson outperforming Hamlin in the season finale to win his fifth straight title.
Now, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will again be honored at the season-ending awards ceremony, sharing the stage Friday night at the Wynn Las Vegas with Hendrick, their boss and the most successful car owner in NASCAR history.
The championship was a record 10th for the organization, which broke a tie with Petty Enterprise for most in NASCAR history – a feat Hendrick never believed possible.
“Honest to goodness, I got into this thing and hoped I could win a race, hoped I could just survive the first year and get enough money to do it again,” Hendrick said in an interview with The Associated Press. “To be able to win a championship? I never that I’d be able to do that. And I’m serious. I watched Richard Childress and Dale Earnhardt, and thought, ‘How in the world am I going to beat them?”‘
Hendrick has always had a knack for working his way up. He grew up on a farm in Palmer Springs, Va., building cars with his father. It led him into the automobile industry, and in 1976 he bought a struggling Chevrolet dealership in Bennetsville, S.C.
Hendrick’s ability to turn that franchise around earned him another one from General Motors, this one in Charlotte, N.C., which moved him into the hub of NASCAR. By 1984, he was putting together a deal to race the Daytona 500 with Richard Petty – a deal that ultimately fell apart, leaving Hendrick without a driver or a sponsor.
He forged ahead, though, taking Geoff Bodine to Daytona for an eighth-place finish. Funds were limited, and Hendrick figured he only had enough cash to make it to the fifth race of the season. Bodine won at Martinsville and that brought a Victory Lane sponsorship agreement with Northwestern Security Life, the single moment that can be credited for saving what’s grown into the best team in NASCAR.
Hendrick doesn’t like to take credit for what he’s built, instead shifting the focus to the incredibly loyal group of employees that shape his organization.
“I want to be competitive and I want to win races and championships, but you know what means more to me? Guys who say our place is special, and appreciate their jobs and feel like it’s a family,” Hendrick said. “If you can have that, that’s my championship: My people feel pride and love for the company. You know how many organizations don’t care about anybody? And everything is all about winning, and not the people?
“Not for us,” Hendrick said. “You’ve got to win, you’ve got to perform and you’ve got to take care of each other.”
As he credits his employees for their devotion, each and every one insists it starts at the top with the boss. His attitude and approach has created an atmosphere of very little turnover, and employees who would rather take a demotion than move on to another organization.
So no one questions Hendrick when he makes hard decisions, like the three-driver shakeup he announced two days after Johnson’s Nov. 21 title. The sweeping changes were born from that marathon meeting two weeks earlier, and a grinning Hendrick boasted he “dropped the gauntlet” by shifting Gordon, Earnhardt and Mark Martin to new crew chiefs for next season.
Gordon, a four-time champion, credited Hendrick for making such a radical change.
“We were celebrating a championship on Sunday and making that announcement two days later – just shows that we never stop, we never rest and we’re always trying to improve,” Gordon said. “If we’re going to win more championships, things like this, led by Rick and these types of decisions, that’s what gets you there.”
And Hendrick does want to win more championships, even though the 2010 title cemented the organization as one of the best in professional sports. Only three other major pro teams – the Boston Celtics, New York Yankees and Montreal Canadiens – have won five consecutive titles.
The Celtics are the all-time leaders with eight straight NBA championships. In racing, NHRA star John Force won 10 consecutive titles from 1993-2002, and Michael Schumacher won five straight in Formula One from 2000-04.
“It’s staggering to be compared to those kind of dynasties and teams, and I don’t feel worthy of that,” Hendrick said. “I remember how overwhelmed I was the first time I went to Daytona, and the first time I walked on pit road with a car, and I thought, ‘I don’t belong here with Junior Johnson and the Wood Brothers and all my heroes.’
“So to be here, with my guys and the pride they have in our company,” Hendricks said, “that’s my championship. Every day is my championship.”