NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Hendrick Motorsports’ Decade of Dominance… & Then Some

This weekend in Homestead, one thing is for certain: Hendrick Motorsports will be the team that captures the 2007 Nextel Cup. It will be the organization’s sixth championship, tying the Charlotte car dealer with Junior Johnson and Richard Childress for second all-time on the NASCAR owner’s title list.

Who the driver is that actually wins the title remains to be seen; but in the case of Hendrick, does it really make a difference? No matter which driver comes out ahead, he’ll still remain the owner clearly positioned at or near the top of the stock car racing world.

It’s hard to believe that Hendrick Motorsports has reached the pinnacle of motorsports in North America after coming from such humble beginnings in the early 1980s. Back then, All-Star Racing was a fledgling yet burgeoning race team, coming of age right about the same time that NASCAR began to emerge from the Southeast and gain national exposure. Chemung, N.Y. native Geoff Bodine was the team’s first driver, and he wasted no time in getting the team some much wanted attention. In fact, he helped All-Star Racing win in only its eighth start in 1984; it was a harbinger of things to come, as the groundwork was being laid for the largest and most successful racing operation in the modern era – and potentially the history of – the sport.

Rick Hendrick’s team has fielded cars for some of the iconic names in racing’s modern era: Darrell Waltrip, Al Unser Jr., Cup champion Terry Labonte and the late Tim Richmond. In the process, the man became a pioneer, fielding multi-car teams that seemed to work together much better than others before. This became the foundation upon which Hendrick would build an empire; with his centerpiece, the heir-apparent to the throne who would make his arrival at the final race of 1992 at Atlanta. Teaming him with a young crew chief who cut his teeth in modifieds, Rick Hendrick was about to set the racing world on its ear, as the duo of driver Jeff Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham had come together for a magical pairing.

Their rookie year together in 1993 was a rocky one, however. Hendrick wistfully recalls Gordon tearing off the front clip of 17 cars that season, despite the youngster ripping through his competition en route to Rookie of the Year. A year later, though, the patience paid off. Gordon earned his first win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, following it up with the second-biggest prize in the sport – his first of four wins to date in the Brickyard 400. Dale Earnhardt went on to win his record-tying seventh Winston Cup that year; but there was a changing of the guard at hand, with Hendrick in perfect position to capitalize.

1995 saw the debut of a new racecar that HMS took the lead in developing, the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. The new car, which emphasized aerodynamic balance and downforce, proved the perfect fit for a new breed of driver like Gordon. Coupled with Evernham’s ability to set up cars that drove similar to the open-wheelers both driver and crew chief were accustomed to, the keys to Gordon’s breakout season came together like magic. Eight poles, seven wins and the Winston Cup championship ensued – denying Earnhardt what would have been his eighth title by a mere 34 points.

The next year, the No. 24 team was even stronger, capturing a series-leading 10 wins on the circuit. However, Gordon would be bested in the title race by teammate Labonte; although he’d win but twice that season, Labonte was just a tick more consistent, winning over his teammate by a scant 37 markers.

No question, the foundation for success had rather suddenly been laid; in just two seasons, HMS had combined for 22 wins and back-to-back championships. Much to the chagrin of the other teams, they were just getting started.

1997 saw Gordon capture a second Winston Cup and his first Daytona 500, in addition to nine more wins on the year. And as Gordon’s statistics became that much more unique, HMS was just beginning to hit its stride. It was now the flagship operation for General Motors, and let’s face it – with the force of the largest corporation on the planet behind you, there really is no limit to what you can accomplish.

1998 would be the season that perhaps helped to cement the legend of Gordon and HMS. That season, Gordon would tie the modern-era mark set by Richard Petty in 1975 for most wins in a season with 13 trips to victory lane. Gordon also tied the modern-era record of four consecutive wins, shared by six other drivers at the time. The trophy he wound up winning that year would be HMS’s fourth consecutive championship – something no other organization in NASCAR can lay claim to.

But as the next millennium dawned, changes were abounding at HMS that would set them back a bit. Long gone was Ray Evernham, the architect credited with the dominance enjoyed by HMS through the mid-to-late 1990s. Many opined that this would be the downfall of Gordon and HMS as a whole, and for a while, it was; during the 2000 season, Gordon had an off-year before rebounding to win the title in ’01. 2002 saw Jeff going through a very ugly and public divorce from wife Brooke while also adjusting to a new teammate; former desert rat, ASA and Busch Series driver Jimmie Johnson. Johnson exceeded all expectations by winning three races, tying the record for rookie wins set by Tony Stewart in 1999. In just his second season, 2003, Johnson just missed winning the final Winston Cup championship by a mere 90 points.

Was there possibly a changing of the guard at HMS?

2004 saw HMS continue to distance themselves from the rest of the field as the dominant force in NASCAR. While Roush Racing would win the inaugural Nextel Cup in 2004, the sheer win total by HMS told the tale of exactly who was number one that year: Roush’s five teams combined to win eight races, while Gordon and Johnson paired for 13. In the end, the No. 48 team lost the title by just eight points (the narrowest margin in history) to Kurt Busch under the new format; under the previous year’s points system, Gordon would have won the title by 47 points.

The duo picked up in 2005 where 2004 left off, with Gordon winning his third Daytona 500 and Johnson winning two weeks later at Las Vegas. Gordon would miss the Chase cutoff that year, and though Johnson went into the final race at Homestead in 2005 with a shot at the title, a blown tire ended his championship hopes. In 2006, though, it all came together – Johnson won his first Daytona 500, the All-Star Challenge and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard en route to his first championship. Johnson would also have claimed his title under just about any past points scenario one could think of.

Now you had two perennial championship contenders under the same roof. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re also the best of friends – a far cry from the bitter rivalry and dissent that clouds the atmosphere of many a race team. It’s a testament to Rick Hendrick and his uncanny ability to put the right people in the right places that such respect is even possible in this day and age.

If 1998 was the year that made Gordon a certified legend in the sport, 2007 will be remembered as the year that HMS was deemed perhaps the greatest racing organization in history. Through 35 races so far this season, HMS has won 18 of them. Gordon moved to sixth on the all-time win list, surpassing Earnhardt in April at Phoenix. His 81 wins now place him just four victories short of moving to third all-time (three wins if you ask a Waltrip fan). Number 24 is also only 24 wins from second on the all-time win list.

The best of all this is that Gordon is only 36 years old; at his current pace, he could easily overtake David Pearson before he turns 40.

Looking to the future, 2008 doesn’t look to be much different than the last dozen years. HMS’s dominance of Car of Tomorrow races this season does not bode well for other 39 teams that plan to go up against them next year. Not only that, but NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver will join the fold next season, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving the family business in an effort to win races and championships. Looking back on the numbers they have put up over the last decade, it’s hard to argue with his decision.

After over a decade of winning championship trophies, Hendrick looks primed and ready to add a few more to their collection.

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