WELCOME, N.C. – Wherever the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway goes this week, Hendrick Motorsports goes with it.
Rick Hendrick’s team won 18 of 36 Cup Series races in 2007 as Jimmie Johnson repeated as the circuit’s champion. In 2008, Hendrick adds Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a driver lineup that also includes four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Casey Mears.
The tour visits Hendrick’s shop near Lowe’s Motor Speedway on Wednesday, but the challenge of supplanting that team as king of the NASCAR mountain has already been the front-burner topic.
“Hendrick has been the standard of excellence,” Jeff Burton said Monday night as the tour visited Richard Childress Racing’s headquarters. “They have set the bar very high and we have to answer that.
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“It is clear Hendrick has been the team to beat, but we’re not coming this year to take a whipping. I am not saying we’re going to beat them, but we are not here to run second. We’re not here to talk about how good Hendrick is, that’s not why we exist. We want people to talk about us. We don’t have excuses. It’s time to get it done. ...We’re going to close the gap.
“At least enough to be a pain in their butts,” teammate Kevin Harvick added. “If we haven’t closed it all the way we’ve definitely closed it some.
“We didn’t to make a major overhaul. We just need to make each little piece a little bit better. We have tried to turn every stone over to make ourselves better and, I promise you this, if it’s not better it’s not from lack of effort. They’re going to have to kick us out before we quit.”
RCR has its three drivers – Harvick, Burton and Clint Bowyer, who finished third in last year’s standings behind Johnson and Gordon – back for 2008 along with all three crew chiefs.
Will Lind, general manager of RCR’s successful Nationwide Series program, is now also overseeing the Cup operations. The team also hired Matt Carter away from his role in coaching the pit crews for Gordon and Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports to oversee the crews at RCR.
A brand-new 93,000 square-foot building on the team’s campus in Welcome includes the a state-of-the-art gymnasium for crew members that, when finished in about six weeks, will have room for indoor pit stop practice as well as rooms for physical therapy and video-tape study.
“The hardest thing in our sport is knowing when to do something different,” Burton said. “If you’re doing well you don’t want to do something different that might mess it up. If you’re doing poorly, it’s easy to do something, but what do you do?
“Richard doesn’t try just to stay up with the times, he tries to stay ahead of them. I am sure no one could imagine 20 years ago a facility like this. ...It’s an incredible investment that Richard has made. But it seems like it’s never enough. It seems like you always have to do more.”
An 18,000 square-foot auditorium in the new building is bigger in itself than the shop in which Childress won six championships with the late Dale Earnhardt as his driver. Childress almost walked away from racing after Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, but now has re-committed himself and his operation to being the best once again.
“I have always loved racing, I will be in it until my old toes curl up, probably,” Childress said. “I just knew I couldn’t let all of our people down. I either had to get out or get in it and try to make it work.”
There was a time, of course, when RCR was the team everybody was chasing. Childress knows what it’s like to be where Hendrick Motorsports is now.
“We know those guys aren’t sitting there saying, ‘We won the championship two years in a row,’ ” Childress said. “They know if they sit there they are going to get beat.
“I am sure they’re talking the same story we are. ‘Bring ‘em on, come after us.’ But nobody rides that horse forever. Somewhere, someday, somebody is going to beat Hendrick. It’s just a matter of who and when and we figure if somebody is going to beat them it should be us.”