Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Thursday January 26, 2012
The first thing that becomes apparent entering the Hendrick Motorsports complex is pride. At the top of the hill, each of the shops which houses a pair of race teams displays the numbers of the racecars housed inside in super size on the wall. 5 and 24. 48 and 88. This is what we build here. Racecars. And Excellence.
Take a stroll through the on-site museum and there are mementos everywhere of the team’s greatest successes: trophies, racecars, videos on the monitors. This is a team that’s as proud of its past as it is of its present. The team center where the teams meet weekly has a banner hung for each of the organization’s 14 NASCAR national touring series championships: ten Sprint Cup titles, a Nationwide Series and three Camping World Truck Series championships. On the wall, there is a Hendrick logo for each of the company’s 199 Cup Series wins with the car number, driver, and racetrack where the victory was taken. The spot for umber 200 is clearly marked; whichever of the team’s four drivers next finds victory lane will permanently occupy that spot in the team’s-and NASCAR’s-lore.
With the pride comes pressure. Jeff Gordon, who is in his 20th season with Hendrick this year, told the media Wednesday that “there’s always pressure.”
Realistically, everything about competing at NASCAR’s highest level is pressure: pressure to keep the seat, pressure to please the sponsors, pressure to win, and when that happens, pressure to keep on winning. But at Hendrick Motorsports, there’s additional pressure from the very excellence that should, ironically, take the pressure off the four race teams.
It’s the same for all four of Hendrick’s teams. Each receives the same opportunities in the form of personnel and equipment, each is given everything they need to build and drive winning racecars. But take a closer look, and it’s not all the same after all. Yes, there’s the pressure from team owner Rick Hendrick and the sponsors and everything else, but each of the four Hendrick drivers also has his own self-inflicted pressure, and it’s as different as they are.
If there is a driver in NASCAR with more pressure to perform than Dale Earnhardt, Jr., he needs to stand and be counted. While he probably keeps his sponsors happier than any driver in the garage, Earnhardt is at the center of the ultimate pressure cooker. He hasn’t won in three seasons, for one thing. But there’s almost a vicious cycle at work for Earnhardt. His legions of fans are loyal and passionate, but there’s no mistaking the fact that they expect him to win. They expect race wins and they expect championships. And they expect them now, thank you very much. There’s a constant rumble among them, and among the detractors, too.
And the detractors are out there, speculation about talent, wondering if Earnhardt simply rode his daddy’s coattails to one of the most sought-after rides in all of NASCAR. The fact that you don’t ride anyone’s coattails to 18 wins doesn’t stop the vitriol. Earnhardt is, after all, in the best of the best as far as equipment goes, so there are no excuses. And there is pressure from this side as well, to prove them wrong.
Not to mention that NASCAR itself has, on more than one occasion, pinned its very hopes on Earnhardt, blaming the driver’s winless drought for falling ratings and waning fan interest. An Earnhardt in victory lane and the champion’s table would bring them back, NASCAR all but said. That’s a lot for Earnhardt, who has spent much of his career proving he’s his own man, part of his father’s legacy but also separate from it, to have to carry week in, and week out. His name alone brings expectations, many of them unreasonable. Hendrick doesn’t have to tell him he hasn’t won in a while; he knows. And so the pressure is on NASCAR’s prodigal son.
Kasey Kahne is the new guy. There’s pressure in that situation because he knows what he’s getting into. Kahne has done his share of winning, but it’s been sporadic. Much of that can be attributed to the equipment he’s had-not terrible, but not really consistently top flight, either. Kahne has been a Chase driver before, but never really a championship contender-and now he’s surrounded by them. His shopmate has four of them. The guy at the top of the hill has five. There has long been speculation about what Kahne might do is really top-tier equipment. Now he has the chance to find out.
This is a huge opportunity for Kahne, probably the biggest of his NASCAR career and possibly the biggest he’ll get. That means, of course, that not only will Kahne’s fans expect him to win immediately if not sooner, but there must be a part of Kahne that expects that himself. He knows he’s talented, he knows he can win…and it would be a disappointment not to do just that early and often.
It’s the same pressure that Jamie McMurray faced when he left Chip Ganassi’s team for Roush Fenway. It was expected that McMurray, why had performed admirably in Ganassi’s racecars, would win races left and right in better Roush-prepared cars. But he didn’t. Whether it was chemistry or whether McMurray was topped out while those observing thought he was being held back, it’ impossible to say. And that’s where Kahne finds himself. If he doesn’t set the world on fire off the blocks, how long does he have before he hears the doubts? How long will it be until the questions about his talent level surface? And how will he handle those questions? The pressure from sponsors, at least at first, will pale in comparison to the pressure of simply trying to prove to himself and anyone watching that he was right all along, that he truly deserves to be held among NASCAR’s elite drivers and not on that second tier of good, but not quite that good.
If the pressure on Kahne is to prove that he’s that good, the pressure on Jimmie Johnson is to prove that he can stay good. By all counts, Johnson has nothing to prove. He has more championships than any active driver, including the one once called “Wonderboy.” He has more championships in a row than anyone in the Cup Series, ever. He wins so much it’s almost obscene. But Johnson has always harbored a fear of not being quite good enough; even after he owned the title of “champion,” that Hendrick would find someone with more talent, and he’d be out of a job. Johnson has always driven with just a little desperation. And that has almost certainly made him better.
Johnson is probably long past needing to worry about job security. He will in all likelihood retire as the best of his era, as one of the best there ever was. But 2011 was an off year for Johnson-the worst of his ten-year career, though still enviable for most. And that rankles Johnson. It’s not ego. “The guy has no ego,” Rick Hendrick said Wednesday. It’s not fear, either, at least not like that old fear of being out of a job. Johnson is unlikely to ever be out of a job until the day that he retires. It’s a different kind of fear, then, perhaps. There’s always a fear that the most recent win, the most recent championship will be the last one. That’s clearly not going to be the case for some time with Johnson, but he’s seen his half-decade reign come to an end. On one hand, that actually means less pressure for the five-time champion. He never really realized the pressure that he was putting on himself to repeat…and repeat again, and again, and again, until that pressure was gone.
Johnson and his team have long been known for their ability to overcome adversity, and now, after their worst season in a decade, they know they need to do that. They aren’t the favorite going in anymore. They want to be next year, and so the heat is on. Johnson has to prove to himself and his team that they aren’t done.
And then there’s Johnson’s boss, four-time Sprint Cup Champion Jeff Gordon. While sponsors are always a worry, even for the most elite drivers, Gordon has backing. He has a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, so he doesn’t fear for his job the way Johnson might.
The pressure on Gordon is both simple and complex. He’s not as young as he used to be, and the wins aren’t as frequent as the frenetic pace he once set of a win every four or five races he once set. His time is limited now, after 20 years. The chances of the next victory being the last are more real for Gordon than they are for Johnson yet, and there are times Gordon as wondered if this was it, if he’d never see victory lane again.
But the reason Gordon pressures himself to excel boils down to the one thing that is the heart of racing for everyone who has ever strapped into a racecar: he likes winning. “It’s all about checkered flags,” said Gordon as he faced the media on Wednesday . When you see that first checkered flag waving like I did when I was five and a half or six years old…from that first moment I did that, there was nothing cooler than that, and nothing more inspiring and motivating than that to want to do that again. When you rise up through the levels, that happens less and less and less because it’s that much tougher and so when you get to experience that like I did with that first Cup race in 1994, that was the greatest moment of my life..I worked so hard to get there…to experience that was the most amazing experience next to having kids, and now that’s what I search for every year, every weekend is getting to that next checkered flag.”
Really, it’s always as simple and complex as that. There is always pressure when you’re at the top. Pressure to get there, pressure to stay there, pressure to continue to set the gold standard. At Hendrick Motorsports, four drivers are in a veritable pressure cooker all the time, nonstop, season after season. It’s the same, but it’s also different, for the pressure that motivates these drivers isn’t just from sponsors, the boss, or even fans-it’s from within themselves. It’s what makes them crave excellence. It’s what makes them want more, every time out. Now, with more than ever to prove after a 2011 that fell just short of dreams and expectations, it’s almost palpable. The pressure is on.
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