NASCAR & Auto Racing

Hendrick's dynasty

We begin, rather remarkably, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. quoting Abraham Lincoln.

Earnhardt Jr. is sitting with his new No. 88 Chevrolets gleaming behind him. The media have descended on Hendrick Motorsports and the Sprint Cup Series' most popular driver has patiently entertained questions that truly will only be answered by the season that's about to begin.

To be precise, Earnhardt Jr. is quoting team owner Rick Hendrick quoting our 16th president.

But still.

"Rick has been using his version of this great quote from Abe Lincoln lately," Earnhardt Jr. says. "Lincoln said about this country that we wouldn't be beaten from abroad, we would be torn down from within. That's how this place is."

Lincoln's words, abridged from their original context of war, actually do nicely frame the significant issue surrounding the start of a new season in NASCAR.

"At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?" Lincoln asked. "... I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher."

3 stars

Two already have championships -- with an "s" -- on their resumes. Jeff Gordon has four. Jimmie Johnson has won the past two. The third, the son of a man who won seven, deeply craves his first.All that talent. All that competitive desire. All that hunger to win. All on one team.

Is it even possible?

That question is as old as the sport itself.

Carl Kiekhaefer built stock car racing's first dream team. Tim Flock won 18 races in 1955 and the next year Kiekhaefer also hired Buck Baker and Speedy Thompson. Flock bailed after running just nine races. Herb Thomas stepped in. By autumn, Thomas had left, too.

Driving his own cars, Thomas pulled ahead of Baker in the championship standings. Kiekhaefer leased a track in Shelby and persuaded NASCAR to add a race, an extra chance for Baker to catch up. In that added race, Thompson hooked Thomas' bumper in a turn and Thomas crashed, suffering serious injuries. Baker won the title, but the outcry caused Kiekhaefer to leave racing after those two years.

Junior Johnson won six championships as a car owner. In five of those years, he ran a one-car team. Lee Petty won three titles and son Richard won seven, but in none of those championship seasons did Petty Enterprises field more than one car full-time. Richard Childress has six titles, but all came before he went to a multicar operation.

Matt Kenseth won the 2003 championship and teammate Kurt Busch won the title in 2004, making Jack Roush only the third owner to win back-to-back titles with different drivers. Kiekhaefer was the first.

Hendrick was the second, in 1995 with Gordon and the following year with Terry Labonte. When Johnson won his first title in 2006, Hendrick became the first owner to win championships with three drivers.

Hendrick has plenty of first-hand experience with how hard it is to get all trains running. From 1993 through 2001, Gordon's No. 24 team won 19.9 percent of the races it entered. All other Hendrick-owned cars in those years won 2.2 percent. Then, the No. 24's success was cloned. Since the first full year for Johnson's No. 48 in 2002, those two teams have won 15.3 percent of their races. The rest of the Hendrick cars have won eight times in 460 starts -- 1.7 percent.

Top talent doesn't always mean chemistry

"It's a culture there now," the man in the blue suit says. "They will not have problems."

Told of the comment, Hendrick grins.

When Hendrick is told who said it, he smiles broadly.

Hendrick went from one to two cars in 1986, just the third year of his team's existence. Tim Richmond fought with his crew chief, Harry Hyde, who didn't trust the other crew chief, Gary Nelson, who was trying to keep Hendrick's original driver, Geoffrey Bodine, from feeling he'd been demoted when Richmond arrived.

Hendrick tried to turn all of those competitive juices into a tide high enough to float all boats. But the championship eluded him.

He then tried his own dream team, luring three-time champion Darrell Waltrip to work with Nelson and top-shelf engine builder Waddell Wilson in 1987. That group never won a title, either.

"We tried to get the best this and the best that and then just put them in a building," Hendrick says. "I had the most talented people, but the chemistry wasn't there. The first time you had a problem, somebody says, `We didn't do it that way at such and such.' "

Then Hendrick hired Gordon and paired him with Ray Evernham as crew chief. The first championship came in 1995, and after Labonte's '96 title, Gordon won two more.

Evernham is the man in that blue suit as he meets with reporters in another preseason session seeking the secrets to the Hendrick success.

"Rick Hendrick," Evernham says, "is a great man, period.

"It has taken Rick 20 years to create it, but he finally has it. It's a feel-good, family, do-your-best culture. When you have that, it's hard to break."

The irony, of course, is that this collegial culture at Hendrick's team was born in the immediate aftermath of Evernham's departure late in 1999, when he left to start his team.

"Ray is as smart and as intense of a guy as I have ever seen," Hendrick says. "He did things that revolutionized this sport and he deserves the credit for that.

"But he would take from the other guys and he gave very little because we weren't really prepared with the other teams to use it anyway. Before the 2000 season, I decided that from then on we were going to win together or lose together, but we were going to be together. You can't build one mountain and have all valleys around it."

Team concept isn't taught; it's understood

Lowe's Motor Speedway President Humpy Wheeler raises an eyebrow."If I have a problem that's weighing me down, I think about the problem Rick is going to have in keeping everybody over there happy," Wheeler says. "You're dealing with three massive celebrities, and as good as they are personally, it's still three people who have one desire -- to win and be the star of the show.

"You also have a cage full of tigers when you have that many sponsors. You have a bunch of people who want attention, they all want to be up front and they all want to win.

"Controlling all of that is going to be past fun. Nobody else has even thought about pulling this off except Rick Hendrick."

That's pretty much the point, Steve Letarte says.

"It goes back to our owner," says the crew chief for Gordon's team. "The reason we want to win is for him. We want to make him proud of us. That is the goal."

When Evernham left, Hendrick wanted his team to become, well, a team.

"When we made that decision, every crew chief and everybody who comes on this place has to agree and buy into that," Hendrick says. "I don't have to say it anymore. They know it, they believe in it. They've seen it work."

Chad Knaus worked for Evernham and then Robbie Loomis, who helped Gordon to a fourth championship in 2001. He then got the call to lead Johnson's team as crew chief.

Letarte started at Hendrick Motorsports when he was in high school, sweeping floors and learning whatever he could whenever he could. He has never had a paycheck from any other company. When Loomis left, Letarte became Gordon's crew chief.

Last year, these two specimens of the Hendrick cooperative's greenhouse found their teams locked in one of the greatest championship showdowns in NASCAR history.

Gordon won at Talladega and Lowe's Motor Speedway to take the lead, but Johnson won the next four races. Gordon averaged a 5.1 finish in the 10-race Chase for the Cup and lost the title. Johnson averaged 5.0.

Week after week, fans and media expected cooperation between the two contending teams to shatter. Or, at least, to fray.

It never happened.

"It's how the company is structured," Letarte says. "It's how we do business every day. We just do it. That's what makes it successful. It doesn't take an effort, I don't have to consciously go out and give something to Chad for him to have it. That's why it works well."

It's not about to change, either. Not even for the most discussed and dissected free-agent signing in recent NASCAR memory, the arrival of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt's son.

"If you are going to come to Hendrick Motorsports and be a part of this organization, it's up to you to make it work," Knaus says. "It's not up to us, it's up Dale Jr. and the guys he brought with them. It's up to those guys to fit into what we've got here. You have to come in and show your work and contribute."

The tools are provided; you produce the results

Tony Eury Jr. and Earnhardt Jr. are cousins. They've worked together off and on, sometimes locking horns, since they were kids.

Eury Jr. was trying to get his team ready for the 2007 season as storm clouds gathered at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Earnhardt Jr.'s contract was up at season's end and long-time tensions between the driver and his stepmother, Teresa, who took the reins when her husband was killed in a crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, were bubbling to the surface.

Before last year's Daytona 500, Eury Jr. pretty much knew Earnhardt Jr. wasn't coming back. They battled through a winless season, the first for Earnhardt Jr. since he moved up to Cup after winning two Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) titles. Late in the year, Eury Jr. left DEI to come over to Hendrick and begin preparations for the new No. 88 team there.

"They have simulations over here I have never seen before," Eury Jr. says. "I've had tire data, but it comes in a different form over here. It's explained more. There are just a lot of things. A test team comes back and gives you a report. If we're going to go test somewhere, they go somewhere like it and figure some things out before we even go. It's the support, the engineering they bring to the table."

And it's the culture.

"There's no hiding anything," Eury Jr. says. "It's our job to build a better team and then you have the confidence to believe you have a better driver and a better race team, and you have 400 or 500 miles to figure out who's best. You're all buddies and then you go race on Sunday to see who has the better team and the better driver."

Earnhardt Jr. has never driven a Cup race for Hendrick. But he gets it, too.

"You can see it in Letarte's eyes and Jimmie's eyes," says Earnhardt Jr., who has 17 career victories. "They're looking to see if you're buying into it. They're checking you out, what are your motives and your reason for wanting to be here so bad.

"From the top to the bottom, I don't think people will put up with it if you're not here for the right reasons, if you're not here to be a team player and part of this company. But Rick makes that so easy. Rick rallies people into the position, to get into that mode and go. You want to make him proud. You want to make him pat you on the back, and he does, when it's due."

Hendrick, 58, says he has similar motivations.

"I care about my family a bunch and I care about the people who have helped me get everything to where it is," he says. "They have always been there for me and we've built something really good. I owe it to them.

"It's the motivation of seeing Steve and Chad and watching Jimmie and Jeff come up. I can't explain it. It's the competitive nature in me. It's people. We have so much respect for each other and so much fun in what we're doing.

"There are hiccups and there are problems, but I don't think I could walk away from it. I don't believe my heart would let me. I don't think I could turn my back on the people who built this place."

Earnhardt Jr.'s first goal is next contract

There is, of course, the possibility none of this will work."There is a lot of pressure on Junior," team owner Felix Sabates says. "If he goes to Hendrick's team and doesn't kick everybody's butt, people are going to say that maybe he's not the driver everybody thought he was.

"He's a great driver, and I think he'll do great. He's with the best organization in racing, period. Nobody is going to come close to touching Hendrick Motorsports. But things happen on the track. People expect for him to win every race and that's not going to happen. He is the No. 3 driver in the Hendrick organization."

Earnhardt Jr., 33, is used to having all eyes on him. The expectations might be excessive, but when haven't they been? He'll never change that. So, he picks his own goals.

"The thing that drives me is trying to get another contract signed four years from now," Earnhardt Jr. says. "If I can get that done, I'll know I did my job while I was here.

"The teammates I have are established, good guys. They don't need Dale Earnhardt Jr. and this company doesn't need me. I am fortunate to be here. They brought me in, Rick thinks I can win a championship. He thinks I deserve it and he wants to be the guy to give me that. They don't have to have me. They have champions already.

"I am going to get along well with my teammates, I will make sure that happens. I am going to get along with everybody and there won't be any problems. If we do have any problems, we will figure them out and get them settled."

Johnson has won two straight championships and 33 races in six seasons. Gordon has 81 victories, an average of five per year in 16 Cup seasons. If he gets that many in 2008, he'll move into third on the all-time list behind Richard Petty's 200 and David Pearson's 105. But at the Hendrick media day, it was Earnhardt Jr. who drew the biggest crowd of reporters. Casey Mears, whose team will share a shop with Earnhardt Jr.'s this year, might as well be in a witness protection program by comparison.

It's a veritable Petri dish in which jealousies could grow.

"C'mon, man, it's Dale Earnhardt Jr.," Gordon says dismissively. "Let's be honest. He's the most popular guy and the guy who gets the most media attention, and that would be the case whether he's on your team or on any other team. That's just part of it.

"As long as we focus on doing our jobs behind the wheel and working as best as we can as teammates and as individuals, we're going to get the benefits he brings and also hopefully make our team rise to the occasion. To me, it's even more incentive to go out there and be competitive."

With preparation comes confidence

Unless Earnhardt Jr. wins the next seven championships to match the record his late father shares with Petty, someone will always consider him an underachiever.

He understands this.

In other words, he knows there's a perfectly logical reason he should be freaking out as this chapter in his career opens.

"I get nervous, I don't have immunity to it," he says. "But going into this year, there is less pressure. I feel like I am in the Busch Series again. I'd go into the year and know I was going to win seven races. I knew I'd win the championship unless I messed it up. That's the way I feel now. I should go out and do just fine unless I screw it up. And I feel confident I won't."

But what if he does? For now at least, it's just not something he's losing sleep over.

"Should I be worried because these guys are saying I should be or keep asking me about pressure?" Earnhardt Jr. asks rhetorically. "Is there something I am not noticing?

"Every time I say that to myself, I keep coming back to the fact that the cars are going to be great and Tony Jr. is working on them. I love that guy and he's great. How lucky are we to both end up in this spot? I trust Tony and I know Rick is going to do a great job.

"And if I don't do well, Rick will have a nice way of letting me down. There will be real stuff, there will be patches. That's part of life and you have to deal with it. But I am going to enjoy it. It's going to be fun." Hendrick said.

Stacked

DALE EARNHARDT JR.

17

Cup wins in eight full seasons.

JEFF GORDON

81

Cup wins in 15 full seasons.

JIMMIE JOHNSON

33

Cup wins in six full seasons.

  Comments