The word “dynasty” is frequently overused in sports – especially in an era where every achievement must be overhyped on Twitter, Facebook and every TV news source imaginable. So the Miami Heat, after two straight NBA titles found themselves on the verge of a “dynasty.” Your local baseball team wins nine games in a row and it’s a “dynasty in the making.” Heck, you win three rounds of neighborhood poker Friday night and suddenly, “Dynasty” gets written on your car in the parking lot.
But in NASCAR, the word is legit these days, a label earned through years of championship success. Hendrick Motorsports, winners of five races in a row this season are seeking their seventh Sprint Cup title in the last nine years of competition. The only two seasons they missed out? Tony Stewart, winning in 2011 while running a Hendrick-supported chassis (making it eight of the last nine, really) and a freak broken part, in 2012 at Homestead that handed former Hendrick protégé Brad Keselowski the trophy over Jimmie Johnson.
It’s Johnson at the forefront again this year as HMS looks poised to cash in again. Sunday’s Michigan triumph marked three of the last four, spent in Victory Lane as the No. 48 shined in Chevy’s backyard. It’s Johnson’s first ever victory at the track, a rare oval that’s snakebit him in a career with Lady Luck as his friend, not a foe. Up to second in points, he’s now part of a 1-2-3 juggernaut bookended by Jeff Gordon (up top) and two-time winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (down below). It’s the best the team has looked since 2009, a year that ended with their top three programs sitting a healthy 1-2-3 in the Chase.
For Johnson, who’s never had a consistent rival through the years, his best bet looks to be Kevin Harvick, second on Sunday, and shining in his new Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. But SHR, despite a four-car team of its own, is fully dependent on Hendrick for chassis and engines. That means even with a Harvick upset, HMS stays the master puppet over all who dare to seriously contend in the Chase. The chances for an “HMS-only” Final Four with Harvick, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon are better than ever these days.
For those who are fans of HMS, hey, that means you’re watching more than ever – and you should disregard the rest of this column. But for the others who’ve stopped watching, and/or paid less attention in recent weeks, that’s because you see a familiar name up front. The truth is, the real dynasties bring fans into the seats wanting more. Some just never catch on, like the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, or UConn’s women’s basketball program. People get tired seeing the same old faces they don’t relate to and refocus on other forms of other entertainment. (Keep in mind, that’s what professional sports still is… a business designed to entertain people.) Even fans of the biggest one, like the UConn women, sometimes get bored of the way they do business. You can only see so many 30-point blowouts, with nothing special attached before you’re subconsciously skipping games. All of a sudden, you’re just assuming they’ll win and tuning in to see the big matchups only.
That’s left NASCAR’s popularity wave (or is it washout?), for better or worse tied to a team (Hendrick) and driver (Johnson) who haven’t been able to captivate America. No one’s sitting here faulting the way they do business; it’s just a cold reality. Popularity contests are based around the fact that no athlete is obsessed over equally. And the numbers? They favor indifference, NASCAR’s ratings tumbling from 2006-14 during Hendrick’s biggest reign of dominance yet.
For a time, this season, with the young Penske drivers shining (Keselowski and Joey Logano), along with new rules producing parity, it looked like there would be shared room at the inn. With NASCAR’s new format, there’s still plenty of time to make that happen. The problem is, whenever it seems Hendrick’s poised to cash out on top fans don’t wait to see a different ending. Whenever it looks like Johnson’s poised for another run of dominance, the auto reflex is “turn off the channel” instead of “let’s wait and see the end.” There is no good and evil, similar to how the Miami-San Antonio series this season has been portrayed in the NBA. It’s just one nice, shiny Hendrick car with millions of dollars of sponsorship versus another nice, shiny car with millions of sponsorship. May the best man win, choose his words carefully as always afterwards and say nothing that will offend a sponsor, tarnish an image or keep random new fans entertained.
Every dynasty, of course, reaches an end at some point; athletes retire, coaches move on, and other teams build better foundations. But at Hendrick, they’ve positioned themselves for long-term success better than anyone else. Young Chase Elliott, a two-time winner in the Nationwide Series is poised to be the next Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, still wildly popular nearing age 40 will bring in extra cash, at least for as long as he’s employed by the company. Johnson is 38 and has 5-7 good years left in him, at least along with a pursuit of the mythical “8.” Even the outside teams, building for their futures need that HMS stamp of approval. Young Kyle Larson? He’s running with a former Hendrick engineer, over at Chip Ganassi Racing along with Hendrick engines and support.
You could say that with a salary cap, and/or NASCAR working to introduce more parity Hendrick would be under constant siege, like the New York Yankees over in Major League Baseball. But there is no franchising here. It’s let the best man win, spend nine figures if you want to… just don’t put more than four teams under your name (but pair up with as many other “teams” as you want!) That leaves no checks in place for a team like Hendrick to climb back down to the masses; the only thing NASCAR can throw out there is new rules, cheaper alternatives designed to bring parity back. But who will typically figure those out, over the course of a nine-month season quicker than anyone else? The team with five employees or one with 500, who can reach out to about 1,000 others or take their engines, chassis, or simple ability to compete right off the table.
The Hendrick “dynasty” continued at Michigan. Johnson, Harvick, even Gordon and Earnhardt had to be pleased with their runs on Sunday. Their reign atop the standings looks firmer each week, along with their grip on NASCAR’s short and long-term future. Could the sport survive without them? Will the sport thrive with them?
Either way, their future seems tied together like a 20-ton anvil every time another HMS title gets added to the shelf. Whether NASCAR should have controlled things better is a moot point, now with so much of the grid under Hendrick influence. There’s no turning back… only trying to work with a “dynasty” that could see no end.