AVONDALE, Ariz. – With 17 wins by its four drivers, Hendrick Motorsports has clearly been the most dominant team in NASCAR this season.
Now, if Kyle Busch can close the year with two strong runs, he could give the organization a clean sweep of the Nextel Cup standings.
Busch trails Clint Bowyer for third place by just 158 points. Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are first and second and locked into a championship battle. They head into Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway separated by just 30 points in the standings.
“Every year you start, you say, ‘If we could end up with all of them being there, that would be an unbelievable,”’ team owner Rick Hendrick said Friday. “Well, if we can pull it off, then I should retire.”
It’s no surprise that Hendrick is in this position.
His teams opened the year strong and adapted to the new car of tomorrow faster than any other organization. They won five straight races, 10 of the first 14 events, and the first five COT events.
Gordon built a lead of over 300 points in the standings during the regular season, and Johnson started the Chase for the championship as the top seed based on his regular-season victories. Combined the two have won 15 races.
Busch has just one win, but has been steady despite losing his job in May. Hendrick is replacing Busch with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the end of the season, but Busch never let it effect his performance as he tried to close his run with a title.
Accidents at Kansas and Talladega knocked him out of contention, but he has rallied from a Chase-low of eighth five weeks ago to fourth. He could have won the Cup races at Atlanta and Texas the past two weeks, and maybe even should have swept the weekend at Texas – he was dominant in the Truck, Busch and Cup races but failed for various reasons to make it to Victory Lane.
“It’s frustrating, but what are you going to do about it?” Busch said. “You just have to go out the next week and do it right. For us, we’re just out there to get third right now and have a 1-2-3 Hendrick sweep.”
But Bowyer is intent on preventing it from happening.
A breakout star in his first Chase appearance, Bowyer flirted with title contention before Johnson and Gordon pulled away. Although not mathematically eliminated from the championship just yet, he knows third is his most realistic chance and doesn’t want to hand it over to Busch.
“You never want to get caught from behind,” Bowyer said. “But right now, unless something drastically major happens, that won’t happen. It better not happen.”
But if it does, it will cement what everyone in the garage has known all season: Hendrick is in a league of its own right now.
Ray Evernham, who won three titles as a Hendrick crew chief, believes preparation gave that organization an edge. The team jumped into the new CoT and was clearly ahead of the competition when the car debuted.
“Hendrick is a good, strong organization with great leadership,” Evernham said. “There was a change this year with the car of tomorrow. Anytime there’s a change, the best prepared team is going to get there first. On average over the next five years, Hendrick is going to be the best team because they’re best prepared.”
The current crew chiefs say it starts at the top, where Hendrick has preached a total team effort. He doesn’t permit divisiveness and that philosophy has led all four teams to work in unity all season long.
“It starts with Mr. Hendrick. He believes in our teams. He believes in spending money. He believes in hiring the right people and applying them in the right places,” said Steve Letarte, Gordon’s crew chief. “He’s not afraid to break the mold, not afraid to do it his way.
“He sets the bar. He sets it for us. We’re just fortunate enough to follow it.”
It’s made jobs at Hendrick very hard to come by because once hired, few ever want to leave. Hendrick is considered home to most of its employees, and the atmosphere is comforting to those fortunate enough to be part of the family.
“If you talk to anybody else, there’s a lot of teams that are going through a lot of hardships, whether its new drivers, new sponsors,” said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Johnson. “There’s cutbacks in the industry right now. There’s a lot teams that are letting people go and there’s a lot of turmoil in a lot of places.
“Right now Hendrick Motorsports is the most stable team, and it’s also the most dominant.”
It took Hendrick years to assemble a company full of employees willing to buy into his philosophy, and he said this season is “proof positive” that teamwork and unity is the superior plan.
But he also said his teams have been lucky this year, and that’s got as much to do with their success as anything.
“We haven’t suffered the way we had in the past – running over an air hose at the wrong time, blown tires, mechanical failures, caught in the pits when the caution comes out,” Hendrick said. “We’ve dodged those bullets. That doesn’t mean we’re that good, it just means we’ve prepared well.
“And I don’t want to take anything away from the talent we’ve got, but we have good racing luck.”