Saturday night at Darlington was defined by history, a milestone 200th victory for NASCAR’s most successful modern-era car owner, Rick Hendrick. It was a long time coming, a sixteen-race drought in contrast with the New York Yankees-like efficiency of the organization: five straight championships, from 2006-10 and employer of the sport’s two winningest active drivers. But as the lights dimmed, The Lady In Black fading into the night last Saturday, “the chase” over for a business pursuing a historic number one couldn’t help but remember the date that truly defined it: 27 years, ten months, and eight days since 200 was actually made to mean something within the walls of NASCAR competition.
Before there was Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon or even Mr. Hendrick himself NASCAR was ruled by one man and one man only: The King. Where Richard Petty drove, a legion of fans followed as the man with the cowboy hat, the southern drawl and the charisma that could charm his closest rivals into avid autograph seekers set the stage for this sport’s growth spurt like no other. Petty’s name dots the record books in all sorts of different ways, from seven championships (tied with Dale Earnhardt) to 27 victories in one season, a sensational 1967 campaign that included a now unfathomable ten in a row. (Just think for a second how many drivers have had ten victories in the last two seasons… or five.) Yet the most incredulous statistic, one that will almost certainly never be surpassed is Petty’s all-time victory total of 200. No one else is even close: Gordon, with just a handful of years left to go will be lucky to tie David Pearson for second one day with 105.
Petty’s chase to finish this all-time record came to a climax on July 4th, 1984 where the pursuit turned towards the sport’s mecca of mythical performances: Daytona. As the laps wound down in the Firecracker 400, The King sat leading but with a hard-charging rival, Cale Yarborough sitting plastered to the real bumper. For the driver of the No. 28 car, settling for second was never an option: Yarborough ran a limited schedule, meaning points were about as useful as Kurt Busch at an Anger Management Convention. The goal was to win in those days, nothing more and for a tense final few minutes Yarborough simply sat plotting, waiting to get inside his competitor’s head. Back then, passing was a certainty at these types of tracks, and Yarborough looked for the right moment to slingshot past and claim victory just like at that year’s Daytona 500.
With less than three laps left, the poker hand was forced. A crash by rookie Doug Heveron brought out the yellow flag, forcing a race back to the finish line for all the marbles (there was no “freeze the field” in those days). Darting down the backstretch, the No. 28 pulled alongside Petty’s vaunted No. 43, using some extra speed to complete the pass and slide effortlessly in front entering turn 3. But Petty saw no “point” to relax and accept the award of first runner-up. Sensing an opening, he waited a beat, regathered his car and pulled a crossover move, using the draft to regain footing on the inside exiting Turn 4. Onto the tri-oval the two cars went, starting to beat and bang each other with both knowing the finish line stood a scant 1,000 feet away. Inch by inch, Petty climbed up to the side with the sparks of their contact welding the cars together like glue. Slowly, the metal moved forward, the front bumper of his clearly recognizable Pontiac lurching just ahead of Yarborough on the asphalt. The bulky, blackish head was the first part of the car NASCAR’s flagman saw as he waved both past the stand, putting the No. 43 in front for good. As the crowd of 80,000 cheered – 27 percent more than the attendance at Darlington this Saturday night – Petty got the checkered flag, then pulled in front of the grandstand to salute all those who paid to see him.
That day’s postrace interview, carried on ABC’s Wide World Of Sports also included a special guest: U.S. President Ronald Reagan. It was the first time a sitting president had ever attended the middle of a NASCAR race, much less this type of exciting conclusion and the humble responses of both he and Petty were carried on national news programs all over the country. It was a landmark moment for The King, an opportunity if there ever was one to go Michael Waltrip and give his sponsors a little extra exposure. But you know what? Notice in the “postrace interview”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vSzxjO9z_C4 there was no mention of STP, Petty’s longtime backer from 1972 onward; just racing talk, combined with a little “thank you” to the Commander In Chief. There was no backlash from the company in question; clearly, having their logo on camera and on the uniform was more than enough. ABC’s Jim Lampley, while a light-hearted interviewer also had no reason to thank Petty; he was merely a sports reporter covering a story on a historic achievement, the definition of the “blue collar” auto racer that could.
Note those differences while transitioning to the other side of the “200” story. A little over two months earlier, in April 1984 a little-known businessman named Rick Hendrick had watched his No. 5 car head to Victory Lane at Martinsville. An up-and-coming driver named Geoff Bodine, driving an unsponsored vehicle no less earned his car owner Cup Series victory number one that day, saving the team from possible extinction as the organization was running low on funds. Hendrick was a single-car team then, just like Petty and Yarborough who battled for bragging sights on that bright Daytona day; after all, in an individual sport no one had thought of two cars working together. But during Hendrick’s two years with only one car, the results were reasonable but hardly record-breaking: three wins, six poles and a high finish of fifth in points during an age when parity ruled the sport. So it was in 1986 when Hendrick chose to win by combining crew chief smarts with a strategy he’d already been successful at: boardroom business. Putting together a multi-car program, with Fortune 500 sponsors his idea was to train two minds to work towards the same goal instead of fighting each other on-track – changing the mentality of an individual sport so that first and second really _would be_ OK if they both worked for the corporation as a whole.
It took several seasons for the businessman to recognize his dream; after all, an old school racer’s mentality is always to finish first, not help someone else try and do it. When Jeff Gordon came on the scene full-time, in 1993 his organization was a battleground of mixed results. Only three times during the first decade – Geoff Bodine (’84), Tim Richmond (’86) and Darrell Waltrip (’89) did the team win more than two races with _any_ car in their stable. Ricky Rudd, in 1991 (second) was the closest the team would come to tasting a championship. At times, the cars were at odds, unable to communicate while single-car programs like Dale Earnhardt’s used a combination of talent and tenacity to blow right by. Richmond, once Hendrick’s dream of a Fortune 500 posterboy to attract corporate sponsors that could carry him to the top died tragically of AIDS by mid-1989.
But then came the man they called Wonder Boy. 1995, Jeff Gordon’s breakout year and surprising title run also signaled a changing of the guard for this sport. Hendrick’s first championship, in NASCAR history was its most life changing: the beginning of the copycat, make-a-second-team-and-have-everyone-share-information era. It’s a road that’s included the car owner’s share of tough times, lows that included house arrest, leukemia, and the tragedy of losing his son Ricky among several other family members and friends after a tragic Martinsville plane crash in 2004. Yet through the ashes of those awful moments has come a permanent NASCAR legacy. There’s ten championships now: five with Johnson, four with Gordon and one with Terry Labonte in 1996. Six Daytona 500s, trophies from three different decades of competition. There’s seven Brickyard 400s, including the inaugural NASCAR race at Indianapolis with Gordon. 181 pole positions, and now? The mythical 200 career victories. Perhaps most importantly, the garage is forever changed by Henrick’s ability to build a four-car empire (and then some, depending on how you view his “engine and chassis services” to Stewart-Haas Racing, among others). The garage these days has become a plethora of corporate dominance, old school racers like Richard Childress and even Petty himself forced to find investors, expand their operations or risk losing their fortunes to the mechanisms of big business and brainpower able to outmaneuver past single-car programs with relative ease. With money has come technology, outside-the-athlete’s-control enhancements that make a significant impact on the ability to post a victory. No matter what happens now, a generation of NASCAR competition has been redefined by a man who holds no “official role” in Daytona Beach, has limited crew chief experience and has never scored so much as a single Cup Series top 10.
That brings us to May 12th, 2012, the date of Mr. Hendrick’s 200th career victory. On this night, it was clear from the drop of the green Johnson was the fastest car; all he needed, with The Track Too Tough To Tame becoming Too Tough To Pass was for the right pit strategy to keep the car up front. During the final laps, there was never a serious challenge, even a green-white-checkered restart leaving Tony Stewart (and HMS half-teammate) sitting in the dust as the No. 48 steered towards a single-file, methodical victory with nary a scratch on the side. As the checkered fell, the neatly-coiffed crew, decked in sponsors came out to meet their Californian driver, with a place in New York (no Southern drawl here) for a business-like burnout on the frontstretch. Afterwards, Johnson was excited for his boss’ place in history, paying homage but never forgetting the training that dots every Hendrick post-race interview.
“I want to thank Chad (Knaus, crew chief) and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for an awesome race car,” he said. “The Kobalt Tools Chevy was bad fast.” Later on: “I wouldn’t have won a bunch of these now if it wasn’t for [Rick Hendrick’s] vision and Lowe’s coming on board to believe in me in the beginning.”
The homage to a boss, armed with a nice guy personality and brilliant strategy… but forever tied to millions in sponsor support and funding that helped create the second “200.” The empire has touched all those who thanked him on-air; from Tony Stewart, who gets the engines and chassis from the HMS program to Jeff Hammond, the FOX analyst who also served as Hendrick’s crew chief during Darrell Waltrip’s Daytona 500 victory in 1989. And then, there was FOX itself, whose network was the beneficiary of Hendrick assistance in the wake of Chris Myers’ son’s tragic death. When a car owner helps fly your people to the funeral, of course journalism loses out to the bias procured by that type of emotional connection. The milestone may pale in comparison to Petty’s 200, or even the 268 procured by Petty Enterprises’ longtime ownership program; however, anyone who works in an office is wise enough to know the old adage, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
What we don’t know is, in this age of NASCAR crossroads, both present and future how much Hendrick’s empire is impacting the current rocky revenue stream. Certainly, in a survey of fans in the grandstands it’s hard to find those who came to Darlington purely to see Mr. Hendrick celebrate his 200th win. The car owner doesn’t drive, nor does he call the shots on the pit box. But on Saturday night, he was the story of the sport, in part because a large percentage of its current grid survives through his presence.
“I am kind of numb, but I am glad it is over,” Hendrick said afterwards, part of a heartfelt, caring speech about the people that work for him. “I’m glad we got 200. Man, I have answered more questions and hauled those hats around and talked about it so much!”
The hat reference links perfectly to a souvenir trailer, one supported by Hendrick employees and hauled around to every racetrack in anticipation of victory No. 200 for the organization. Those items, available for purchase help celebrate the momentous achievement, a stark contrast to July 4th, 1984 and a day defined by Southern roots, its greatest driver and a humility that helped spark its future growth.
Welcome to NASCAR, the next generation. Whether it’s better, or worse, is up for you to decide; but clearly, as these “200” achievements suggest, the differences make it look like two different sports.
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