The Hot Pass: Hendrick’s instincts pay off

Rick Hendrick has a way of making dreams come true for racers deserving of a second chance in their careers.

He was able to reignite the career of the late Tim Richmond after the dynamic driver suffered through a winless season in 1985 by giving him an opportunity to drive the No. 25 Folger’s Chevrolet in 1986. In 29 starts, Richmond posted a remarkable eight poles and earned seven wins, 13 top-fives and 17 top 10’s. Despite two engine failures, Richmond finished a career-high third in the point standings. He won two more races in eight starts the following year before dying of AIDS in August 1989 at the age of 34.

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Terry Labonte won a championship driving for Billy Hagen in 1984, but once he moved to the Hendrick stable a decade later, his loyalty was rewarded with three multiple winning seasons that hit a crescendo with his second Cup title in 1996 at the age of 40.

Fast forward to 2009. While Mark Martin, 50, isn’t leading the point standings (he’s currently 11th), he tops the Cup Series with the most wins (four) and on Saturday he won his fourth pole of the season and his first at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a lap of 182.054 mph.

“He’s a special guy,” Martin says of his boss Rick Hendrick. “He takes a little extra pride in that. I think he and Jeff Gordon both are enjoying our success because they were the biggest believers in this. Jeff was a huge supporter of Rick persuading me to do this, as well. Doing something that some people thought couldn’t be done, I think they enjoy it.”

Despite Martin’s blistering lap of 49.436 seconds, he admitted to leaving something out on the track Saturday. But that’s one of the differences between a seasoned racer compared to the less experienced driver. Humility aside, Martin knew he turned a “spectacular” lap but it pained him knowing he could have given just a little bit more.

“I went into Turn 3, like in my phrase, ‘young and dumb,’ and it was pretty eventful. When I got off of that one, I had this quick flash in my head of the (No.) 5 car on the wrecker, and therefore Turn 4 wasn’t eventful. I had that quick flash. When I came off of Turn 4, not a tire on the car slipped. … The car could have been better, and therefore I could have maybe done a better job with my judgment on the turns.”

There are few drivers as calculated as Mark Martin. Sure, there’s a self-deprecating side, but no one has ever questioned his commitment. While most drivers his age have hit the couch, Martin continues to set an example for his younger teammates with his intense workout routine. He confesses that over time, “there are some elements that deteriorate,” but the experience behind the wheel and in life can compensate for those shortcomings.

“There are some elements that you can use as your strengths: experience and judgment, you’ve seen situations before,” Martin said. “In my case, I’ve made the wrong decision and learned from it. All I can do is use my strengths. That’s all I can do. I can’t do anything about my weaknesses. I can’t help it that I got to have reading glasses to read a menu.

Martin’s teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified third with a lap of 180.567 mph, said he knew bringing the veteran on board this season “was going to be fun.” Earnhardt said the joy that Hendrick derives from the experience is every bit as rewarding as the numbers Martin has put up behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“Rick was really, really excited to be able to work with Mark,” Earnhardt said. “I think Mark was excited to work with Rick. So it’s been fun talking and hearing Rick, you know, after a win or something, texting back and forth with Rick, being able to feel the excitement in his communication with you about Mark.

“I knew Mark would come in and run well. I knew he would be fast. That’s a great race team. He’s a great driver. It was just a perfect fit. They were both at the right place at the right time. Hopefully he’ll stick around for a couple years. I’m sure if he’s running like this and winning races, it won’t be hard to talk him into it.”

Hendrick could not hide his admiration for Martin as he described the racer’s dedication and determination after the win at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago. Hendrick knew after experiencing Martin’s “raw talent” if he provided the veteran with the right equipment the magic would follow.

“Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and I said we can win a championship with Mark Martin this year,” Hendrick said at Chicagoland. “We said that before we started. We were confident we could win races. … He’s a little bit more modest than we are about him. I think we felt that way early on.”

After winning at Chicagoland, Martin didn’t want to talk about his chances for making the Chase. After taking the pole at Indy, Martin didn’t want to talk about his chances for kissing the bricks Sunday or his chances for winning the championship.

But it’s clear the way that Martin is driving right now and with the support he has from his team, all of those goals are possible.

And Martin will certainly capitalize on the second chance that Hendrick has presented him.

“I happen to have the same fire and desire that I had 30 years ago,” Martin said. “Not everyone, you know, has that. Maybe three years ago I didn’t have as much either. I had a chance to look at it and say, ‘What I want in life, what do I want out of life, and can I still do this?’ That’s a very important question that I asked myself.

“The (No.) 8 car (at Dale Earnhardt Inc.) was really the one that answered the question. You know, we ran so good in the 8 car that it gave me the confidence that I could probably still do it. I don’t want to race to make laps.”

Harvick mum on 2010

Kevin Harvick refused to fuel the speculation that he was leaving Richard Childress Racing after 2009 despite reports to the contrary.

Harvick, who is currently 25th in the point standings and enduring a 90 race winless streak, admitted he lacked consistency in his equipment this season and his “up-and-down spurts wouldn’t win championships.”

“Everybody is kind of stale right now,” Harvick said. “Everything is not fast enough. Everything isn’t run good enough to be where everybody wants to be. I don’t really have anything to look at or look forward to.

“I don’t have anything cooking or anything different. Right now I’m the driver of the No. 29 Shell Pennzoil RCR Chevrolet. That’s my job. That’s what I intend to focus on. Everything else will take care of itself.”

Harvick, who won at Indianapolis in 2003, admits that performance has picked up lately. He stood up for the crew chiefs at RCR and noted that swapping his team with Casey Mears’ team didn’t expose any weaknesses personnel but made “people realize that the problem lied somewhere else other than our crew chiefs”.

Harvick implied it’s up to the front office to ensure the teams have what is necessary to compete with the best teams in the sport.

“What has changed is everything — every body, every piece on the body — just about every piece of the car has changed over the past four to five weeks,” said Harvick, who qualified 19th Saturday. “There’s a lot of unfair pressure that gets put on our crew chiefs. I think we have four really good crew chiefs and they got to have the stuff to back up what they want to do in the garage around the racetrack and around the things they operate around. Swapping teams that are really good teams hasn’t hurt me at all. Our team is functioning well. We’ve made great strides from where we’ve started and I feel like we are a comfortable eighth to 10th-place team right now.”

Silly season part deux

Brian Vickers believed he was locked into the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota for 2010.

Now, he’s not so sure.

Vickers, who is 16th in the point standings and will start sixth Sunday at Indianapolis, said, “I’m keeping all my options open. The ball’s in their court.”

Although Red Bull GM Jay Frye expected Vickers’ contract to be signed after Michigan last month, the deal has been put on hold pending a meeting with Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz which has been rescheduled from last week.

On Friday, Frye insisted he was pleased with his current driver line up but admitted the phone has been ringing.

Penske drought

Roger Penske’s drivers have amassed a remarkable 14 Indianapolis 500 wins but the Captain is 0-for-15 in the Brickyard 400.

Sam Hornish Jr., who won the 500 for his boss in 2006, would like to change that record on Sunday. Hornish qualified 15th with a lap of 179.404 mph. His teammates David Stremme and Kurt Busch will start the race 21st and 40th, respectively.

“We all know that Roger wants to win here,” said Hornish. “We all want to give Roger his first (NASCAR) win here. We brought what we believed is our best race car here. We’re just looking forward to getting out there and racing.”