Once again, Hendrick raises bar in NASCAR

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Steve Byrnes

Steve Byrnes is a host and reporter for NASCAR on FOX. A broadcast veteran, he has covered racing for more than 20 years. Follow him on Twitter.

After announcing his decision to join Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks so happy. It's good to see Junior smiling and happy. He's obviously relieved and excited about where he's going. At the end of the day, he just wanted to go to a place where somebody wanted him. Although there are details to iron out, they are just details. Rick Hendrick will do whatever needs to get done in terms of sponsorship or personnel. Dale Jr. shouldn't have any problems fitting in with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Casey Mears. Junior doesn't care about being "the man." He cares about winning races and having the best opportunity to win the championship. When he hired Gordon to drive for him in 1992, Hendrick changed the way this sport developed talent, and he's changing the sport again by creating the most impressive driver lineup in NASCAR history. Before Hendrick put Gordon in that No. 24 car, the prevalent theory was you put a guy — like Bobby Labonte or Joe Nemechek — in a Busch Series car for seven or eight years, and then he would get the opportunity for a mediocre Cup ride. But at 21 years of age, Gordon was bolted in good equipment to see how he would do. It was lightning in a bottle. Then owners started saying, "Heck, if we have good equipment, we can put a young guy in a car." It used to be, "Let's go with a veteran who we know is going to make the race." You saw drivers like Michael Waltrip and Kenny Schrader swapping rides a lot, but Gordon's first start in Richard Petty's last ride changed the complexion of the sport with the final race of 1992 at Atlanta. Hendrick's hiring of Dale Jr. is another watershed moment, but it's not a bad thing for the sport. It would be like saying the New York Yankees had too much talent when they signed Roger Clemens. It's up to the other teams to step up now. Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing South aren't going to roll over and say, "Wow, the Hendrick superteam is going to kill us." They're going to have to work on their own programs to stay competitive. The Hendrick teams have won 10 of 14 races this season, but with any luck, Denny Hamlin would have four wins right now. Dale Jr.'s move will create some interest for the rest of the year, heading into 2008.

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Hendrick won't stifle a driver's individuality or aggressiveness. The owner will draw the line when it comes to representing a sponsor and the organization well. The National Football League has been cracking down on players that run afoul of the law because they're not just representing their teams; they're representing the league. Just like the NFL, Hendrick Motorsports wants people that conduct themselves with class. I'm not saying that Kyle Busch hasn't conducted himself with class, but he's an aggressive and outspoken guy. Busch has as much talent as anybody in the garage area, and the way he can drive loose race cars har reminds me a little bit of Greg Biffle. He's just got so much talent and ability. Let's look at another 22-year-old athlete, LeBron James. Did he have a great NBA Finals? No. He had turnovers and missed a lot of shots, but he's got confidence. As you get a little bit older, you realize certain things and ask yourself if a hill is worth dying for. Confidence is one thing, but you've got to look at the bigger picture. Kevin Harvick was a lot like Busch. He was a great, young driver that was aggressive and fearless. On SPEED's Trackside at Pocono, he admitted that he let his competitive spirit get the best of him at times, and NASCAR let him know by parking him for a Cup race in 2002 at Martinsville after an on-track altercation in a Craftsman Truck race. Busch has to learn how to look at the big picture a little bit more. He's got as much talent as anybody out there, but the old saying in NASCAR is to finish first, you must first finish. Busch is going to have to learn how to back down his enthusiasm just a little bit.

NASCAR on FOX and SPEED host and reporter Steve Byrnes has covered racing for more than 20 years.

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Casey Mears, Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Michael Waltrip, Joe Nemechek

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