Sometime in the next few weeks – perhaps this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway – Rick Hendrick will win his 200th Cup race as a NASCAR team owner.
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And, thanks to mega champion Jimmie Johnson, he is in prime position to win an unprecedented sixth straight Sprint Cup championship and his record 11th in 16 years.
With 199 victories, Hendrick Motorsports is second on the all-time win list, behind only Petty Enterprises and its 268 wins.
That’s quite a journey for a team that started with just five employees and a 5,000-square-foot shop.
Twenty-seven years later, the Hendrick dynasty is housed on a 430,000-square-foot campus (yes, it’s a campus), employing hundreds of workers, building its own engines, its own chassis, some of the fastest cars in the sport and servicing other teams with the same resources.
How did the car salesman and aspiring race-car driver do it?
Certainly his work ethic, determination, perseverance and amazing business acumen are big factors.
But Rick Hendrick’s secret to success is simple: He has an amazing knack for attracting quality, talented people, and then keeping them by treating them with the utmost respect and giving them everything they need to be successful.
“I’ve been very fortunate with people,” Hendrick said during his team’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2009. “You’ve got to have good drivers and good crew chiefs and good people.
“We’ve been really blessed. We’ve got so many folks that have been there 20 years. Along with the young guys that have come along, we have a good mixture of seasoned people and young people that are working hard together.
“I look back at it and I can’t believe it. To be able to do something in life that you love and you would do for nothing and spend whatever money you had to do it anyway, I’ve really been blessed.”
Hendrick and his team have been on top of the NASCAR world since Jeff Gordon won his first Cup championship in 1995. That he has ruled such an ultracompetitive sport for the past 16 years is remarkable considering the trials and tribulations Hendrick and his associates have been through personally.
Hendrick has battled leukemia, endured legal troubles that included a federal indictment for charges stemming from the operation of his automobile dealerships for which he was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton and suffered the tragic plane crash that killed 10 family members, friends and associates, including his brother and son.
That’s enough to cripple and ruin the strongest of men, but through it all, Hendrick has persevered to build and maintain the greatest NASCAR dynasty since the heyday of Petty Enterprises and perhaps the greatest team in NASCAR history.
He’s done it by setting the standard for the things that it takes to build a winning team:
Developing top talent
Petty dominated parts of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s thanks to The King, Richard Petty. Hendrick dominated the ’90s and 2000s thanks to Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and a host of other talented drivers.
The Pettys raised Richard, the son of team founder Lee Petty.
Hendrick attracted and developed Gordon and Johnson and had the foresight to acquire the other top drivers that have helped make Hendrick Motorsports a dynasty.
No team owner has had more success over the years at finding and developing talented young drivers. From Geoff Bodine and Tim Richmond, who won nine races in 1986-87 before becoming ill, to Gordon and Johnson, Hendrick has had a knack for finding talent and cultivating it.
Gordon and Johnson are the two greatest drivers of the past 20 years, and Hendrick landed them when they were both young enough that no one had any inkling what they could accomplish.
What have they done? Only won 140 Cup races and nine championships between them.
Luring top talent
When Hendrick hasn’t been able to sign and develop top drivers, he has lured them from other organizations.
It all started when Hendrick began his NASCAR team in 1984 with Bodine, an up-and-coming star. In 1986, he added another rising star in Richmond. By 1987, his stable included former champions Benny Parsons and Darrell Waltrip.
Hendrick has continued the trend throughout his organization’s history, acquiring such big-name drivers as Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin.
The lineage continues next year when Kasey Kahne joins the organization.
Why do many of the sport’s top drivers want to drive for Hendrick?
Because he provides them with the best of everything, not the least of which is fast cars and a golden opportunity to win races and championships.
“I look at these drivers – I don’t know how in the world I’ve been fortunate enough to have a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or Dale Earnhardt [Jr.] or Darrell Waltrip or Bodine or [Tim] Richmond or [Ricky] Rudd,” he said. “I’ve just been really lucky to have the stable of talent that I have had. Hopefully we’re not done yet.”
Developing top crewman
Not only has Hendrick excelled at developing and acquiring top drivers, he also has produced the best crew chiefs in the sport.
Ray Evernham, who began his NASCAR crew chief career at Hendrick, led Gordon to three of his four championships.
Chad Knaus, who worked under Evernham, has made history with Johnson, orchestrating perhaps the greatest accomplishment in the sport’s history with five straight Cup championships.
Other winning crew chiefs – Alan Gustafson, Steve Letarte – have followed the Evernham-Knaus path, learning the ropes at Hendrick before developing into top, winning crew chiefs.
Those crew chiefs, in turn, surround themselves with top crewmen, forming the best team and pit crews. And some of them will one day develop into top crew chiefs.
And the cycle goes on and on and …
Mastering the multi-team concept
Hendrick was fielding multiple Cup cars before the multicar team approach was in vogue.
In fact, he was one of the first team owners to prove it could work in NASCAR’s most competitive era.
Hendrick started his team in 1984, fielding a single car for Bodine. In 1986, he added a second car for Richmond. By ’87, he had a four-car team featuring Richmond, Bodine, Parson and Waltrip.
At the time, only Junior Johnson was fielding multiple cars. Richard Childress Racing was winning championships with a single car for Dale Earnhardt and didn’t add a second Cup car until 10 years later. Jack Roush didn’t begin fielding multiple cars until 1992.
Now practically every organization fields at least two cars and most have three or four. None of them have come close to the success of Hendrick, who produces multiple winners practically every year.
Signing and keeping big sponsors
Why has Hendrick been so successful at fielding multiple teams?
Because he has used his business expertise to attract, cultivate and keep big corporate sponsors. DuPont has backed Jeff Gordon since his rookie year. Lowe’s had been with Johnson since he was a rookie. Budweiser spent years backing Hendrick cars, as did Kellogg’s. Pepsi has been there for years, as have numerous smaller companies.
Because they know that they will not only win, but get more bang for their sponsor buck.
And it doesn’t hurt that Hendrick is one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors and one of its most charitable and respected leaders.
Making big changes and tough decisions
A team doesn’t stay on top for as long as Hendrick has without taking risks and making tough decisions.
Aside from releasing and replacing underachieving drivers over the years, Hendrick has made some shrewd moves to improve the chemistry and performance of his teams.
Some have backfired (Kyle Busch for Dale Earnhardt Jr.), but most have brought stellar results (Labonte and Martin).
He has made three crew chief changes for struggling Dale Earnhardt Jr., including replacing Earnhardt Jr.’s cousin, Tony Eury Jr., who followed him from Dale Earnhardt Inc. The latest move, pairing Earnhardt Jr. with Steve Letarte, resulted in Earnhardt Jr. returning to the Chase for the Sprint Cup this year.
His sweeping crew chief changes after last season not only propelled Earnhardt Jr. back to the Chase but rejuvenated Gordon as well.
Hendrick has a had a knack for making shrewd moves at critical times to keep his teams and organization on top.
Just like he did in building the sport’s greatest dynasty.