May 19, 2012
By Jim Fitzgerald
Up In The Marbles…After The Bojangles Southern 500
The Meaning of 200
At Darlington, as the Bojangles Southern 500 came to a close, we saw something we have seen many times before.
Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line before everyone else in the race. Considering Johnson has won five Championships, and on fifty-five other occasions, he crossed the finish line first, this does not seem like too large of an accomplishment. Not that the talent or equipment needed for winning any race should ever be overlooked, but with a record as stellar as Johnson’s, it may have been looked upon by some as just another day at the office.
In truth, the day and the win could not have meant much more to Johnson, his crew, and especially his owner. Hendrick Motorsports as a company, via Johnson’s accomplishment at the track on Saturday night, recorded the 200th win for the organization.
What does this feat mean for NASCAR?
In a time where car owners and teams come and go like the tides, 200 wins means stability. In 1984, Hendrick Motorsports put a race car on the track for the first time in the Goody’s Sportsman 300 at Daytona. Two years later, they won the Daytona 500 with Geoff Bodine as the driver. At the end of twenty-six seasons later, Johnson had won his fifth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Championship.
Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick did not have a smooth ride to the top, however. There is always the story of how he was ready to lock the doors on the endeavor, but Bodine won a race at Martinsville and kept the dream alive.
Hendrick also has to deal with multiple driver chances over the years, and some under great controversy and scrutiny. Tim Richmond was always under the microscope for his flamboyant lifestyle and then his eventual sickness and passing.
1989 Daytona 500 Champion Darrell Waltrip left Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 17 ride to start his own team, DarWal, Inc., and took the number with him. At the end of the 2007 season, perpetually newsworthy driver Kyle Busch announced that he would not be returning to the seat of the No. 5 Chevrolet. Thrown into this mix were the health and legal issues of Hendrick himself and it really turns into a Rocky Balboaian story of perseverance.
In a time when the playing field has never been more equal, 200 wins means ingenuity. You may not like the fact that Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, or Ray Evernham, Jeff Gordon’s longtime crew chief in the 1990’s, were often caught bending, or even breaking the rules during their time with Hendrick Motorsports. You may call them “cheaters” or “rule breakers”, but they are also innovators. The sport of NASCAR is the way it is today because of these men, and others like them. Whether you agree with their method of execution or not, you must admit that what they have had major success with multiple wins and multiple Championships. A large part of that success is the willingness to push the edges of within the rules, and sometime beyond them.
In a time when drivers change seats almost as much as socks, 200 wins means loyalty. Jimmie Johnson has amassed fifty-six wins in just over ten seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, and won Championships in half of them.
Jeff Gordon has been at Hendrick Motorsports since the final race of the 1992 season. It is rare, especially these days, to find a car owner and driver combination that have that kind of relationship, which is one that will endure a 20-year span in a sport that is ever-evolving.
In his time with Rick Hendrick’s outfit, Gordon has won 85 races, four Championships, and has three Daytona 500 victories. Between Johnson and Gordon, the two drivers have combined to collect more than 140 of those 200 wins. When two drivers, on this scale, are responsible for sixty percent of the wins, that speaks not only to levels of success, but to the fact that drivers want to come to Hendrick Motorsports, and they want to stay at Hendrick Motorsports because of that success. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. left his family operation behind to drive for HMS.
Finally, 200 wins means science. While some teams are changing crew chiefs and engine providers in the middle of the season, Hendrick Motorsports has their own in-house engine plant, and they grow most of their people from within the company.
A great example of this is Steve Letart. Letart is now Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s crew chief, but for a time before that, he was Jeff Gordon’s crew chief. For a while before that, I remember seeing Steve Letart going over the wall as part of Gordon’s pit crew as a tire specialist. If you’re a fan of the full story, early chapters in the book have Letart starting out in the mid-1990’s sweeping the floors at the Hendrick Motorsports shops.
From a broom jockey to the crew chief of the most popular driver in NASCAR; that, my friends, is home grown talent. Not only do they have a knack for keeping their people, Hendrick Motorsports has a very successful history of putting them in the right places.
A few years ago, amid Johnson’s multiple title run, Jeff Gordon was struggling, as was Earnhardt. Before the 2011 season, Alan Gustafson, then the crew chief for Mark Martin in the No. 5, was moved the Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team. Letart, who was with Gordon, was shifted to be Earnhardt’s crew chief, and Lance McGrew was moved to Mark Martin’s team. Gordon responded to the changes by knocking off three wins with Gustafson, and Letart has helped make Earnhardt a legitimate title contender, even though the team is still without a win in nearly four years.
Martin and McGrew did not fare as well, and when Martin departed for Michael Waltrip racing at the beginning of the 2012 season, new driver Kasey Kahne brought his long time crew chief Kenny Francis with him. McGrew was not released, however. He currently is assigned to the research and development branch of the organization.
All of this speaks volumes to the type of organization that is Hendrick Motorsports. There are reasons that an open seat in a race car at Hendrick Motorsports is one of the most sought after seats in racing. Kasey Kahne signed his contract with HMS a season and a half before he could even get into the car. There are reasons that crew members want to be there.
Chad Knaus left the organization in 2001, and then came back to be Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. There are reasons that sponsor want their products to adorn the hoods and quarter panels of the Hendrick cars. Sponsors like the names of their products on winning cars and merchandise that people will buy.
You may not be a fan of Hendrick Motorsports, the team members or their actions, the owner, or his past, or of drivers so dominant they have won ten Cup Championships since 1995. I’ll tell you right now, as a fan, I pull for some drivers, and the only bow ties I have seen them wear are during the Championship Awards Ceremony.
You must admit, however, that Hendrick Motorsports is doing something right. They have multiple Championships with multiple drivers across multiple series. They have hundreds of employees, and now, hundreds of wins.
Two of them, to be exact.
Stick the fork in me; I’m done for this week. Up next is, oh, nothing special, just the All-Star race! Prediction: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will get the fan vote.
Take that one to Vegas. Unless he races his way in….
Remember to follow me on Twitter @Forewasabi I’ll have good things for you in a month or so.
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