NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports Legacy

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced his retirement from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series at the end of the 2017 season last Tuesday (April 25), it was no surprise it came with Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick by his side, since that’s the team for which Earnhardt currently drives in the Cup Series.

However, here’s an odder notion to consider: when all is said and done, what is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team? You know what I mean? Like, it was Hendrick with Jeff Gordon, Richard Childress Racing for Dale Earnhardt. Even Mark Martin, who drove for Hendrick and other organizations toward the twilight of his career, is often considered a Roush Fenway Racing driver through and through.

What’s interesting to note, then, is that it’s a good thing that drivers aren’t inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame (for which, let’s be real, Earnhardt is an eventual lock) with a specific team, because Earnhardt’s Cup career is actually fairly split between Hendrick and his previous team, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Even the stats are similar. Earnhardt made 291 starts for his family-owned team before splitting off to Hendrick, where he currently has 312 races under his belt — a number dragged down by a half-season schedule in 2016 but one that will still be added to given the 2017 relative infancy.

But while Hendrick has been his home for a longer period of time, the lion’s share of his career wins came at DEI — 17 to nine — while his top five split is fairly even (76 at DEI, 73 at Hendrick). His top 10 count, meanwhile, has an edge at Hendrick (132) vs. DEI (121). And bear in mind, of course, that Earnhardt has 28 more races to best that top five count (as well as the win column, but… baby steps).

OK, so Earnhardt isn’t a Hendrick lifer whose career feels defined by his time there, nor is it the case at DEI. There is one surety in 2017, though: that DEI no longer exists. It’s simple, therefore, to frame Earnhardt’s contributions within that team’s lifetime, since it no longer exists. The answer there, by the way, is that he’s far and away the team’s best driver in its 13-season existence, owning 17 of its 24 wins. Next closest is Michael Waltrip, who won three.

Hendrick is a different animal. After all, it’s a team that’s been around since 1984 and shows zero signs of ending anytime soon, and it has a rich history of drivers who’ve competed in dozens of races — sometimes hundreds — for it, let alone its 247 wins as an organization.

And in terms of longevity, Earnhardt is certainly one of Hendrick’s longest-lasting competitors. He’s currently in possession of fourth on the all-time starts list for the team in the Cup Series and will hold that spot by season’s end. The next closest competitor still with the team is Kasey Kahne, who is 124 starts behind.

Beyond that, the question ends up being whether is third or lower on Hendrick’s all-time best drivers list. Because Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon undoubtedly have the top two locked down, and there’s probably few people who would dispute that. Beyond that? Things get a little murkier.

As of this writing, 16 different drivers have won in a Hendrick Cup car. Many of them, like Earnhardt, had long careers with the team. Then there’s someone like Tim Richmond, who managed nine wins in 37 starts — nearly a fourth ended in Victory Lane — but whose career was tragically cut short.

In one sense, we can say that Earnhardt is tied for the fourth most wins in a Hendrick car. Besides Gordon and Johnson, there’s Terry Labonte ahead of him with 12 victories, while Richmond and Darrell Waltrip’s nine ties Earnhardt. With at least one win this season, he takes over sole possession of the distinction, and Labonte’s amount isn’t insurmountable either.

We can also say that he’s in possession of the third most top fives, 73, and is nine ahead of Labonte and Ken Schrader. He’s fourth on a top 10 front with 132, but Schrader, with 134, is only two ahead with 28 races remaining, so there’s a good chance he’ll take over the third-place distinction there as well.

But he would be high up on those lists, right? Having over 300 starts with a single team, and being a driver worth one’s salt in that process, will do that.

How about diving into percentages? As in, what percentage of Earnhardt’s starts with Hendrick ended with a win, a top five or top 10? Perhaps that‘s where the money is.

In that sense, Earnhardt’s stock drops a bit. Among all drivers that competed in at least one race for Hendrick, he’s barely in the top 10 of two metrics: wins, since he’s won 2.9 percent of his races (10th all time), and top fives, where the number is 23.4 percent (again, 10th). In top 10s, he’s 12th (42.3 percent), though he’s really more like 10th there as well, since Dick Brooks and Regan Smith only ran one and two races for the team, respectively, and their one top 10 each knocks their percentages sky high.

The top 10 of each with drivers who’ve run less than a season’s worth of races, then, looks like this:

Wins: 1) Tim Richmond, 2) Jimmie Johnson, 3) Jeff Gordon. 4) Darrell Waltrip, 5) Mark Martin, 6) Geoff Bodine, 7) Kyle Busch, 8) Ricky Rudd, 9) Terry Labonte, 10) Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Top fives: 1) Richmond, 2) Gordon, 3) Johnson, 4) Waltrip, 5) Rudd, 6) G. Bodine, 7) Chase Elliott, 8) Busch, 9) Ken Schrader, 10) Earnhardt

Top 10s: 1) Johnson, 2) Gordon, 3) Richmond, 4) Rudd, 5) Waltrip, 6) Schrader, 7) G. Bodine, 8) Elliott, 9) Busch, 10) Earnhardt

Little different, right?

Now, look, this is not meant to tarnish Earnhardt’s legacy by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, look at Labonte, who won a championship with the team and had some of his best years there — he’s not even within the top 10 of top fives and 10s percentage-wise, though he makes it there by sheer volume. Even Johnson and Gordon, who, again, few would dispute as Hendrick’s best drivers of all time, got beat out by Richmond in certain metrics. It’s not to say either that Richmond is some unsung hero of Hendrick Motorsports, because he’s not. He’s simply important within the tapestry of the team as a whole, and his formidable run in the late 1980s is definitive, but we’re talking about an organization with nearly three-and-a-half decades in the sport.

And to that end, Earnhardt matters at Hendrick. He had his rough seasons, like the rough 2009 and 2010 that frankly very much drags down his stats  (remove them and suddenly he’s sixth all time in top fives and seventh in top 10s percentage-wise, and that has to count for something). But time spent somewhere adds a lasting legacy, the actual stats icing on the cake.

Johnson and Gordon levels? No, but he was never going to make it there, since they spent their entire careers with the organization. For a 10-season residency with Hendrick, what Earnhardt accomplished isn’t too shabby at all.

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