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Harris: Success Is In The Details

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 15 2009
Rick Hendrick is already working on the 2010 season.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Rick Hendrick is already working on the 2010 season. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

One big reason for the long-term success of Hendrick Motorsports is the attention that team owner Rick Hendrick pays to detail.

He’s got more than 500 people working for his elite team, and many of them are among the best at what they do. That’s how his team has matched Petty Enterprises with nine championships in NASCAR’s elite Cup series.

And most of the time, Hendrick lets those people do what they’ve been hired to do. But Mr. H, as most of his team calls him, is hands on when he needs to be.

Coming off a season in which Jimmie Johnson won an unprecedented fourth straight title and Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon helped give Hendrick an equally unprecedented 1-2-3 finish in the points, Hendrick wasted no time in getting the preparations for 2010 in high gear.

Speaking with RacinToday.com before the awards dinner in Las Vegas, Hendrick said he has met with all the key people on his team since the end of the season at Homestead.

“The thing that fires me up now is when I listen to Jimmie and (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) or Mark and Jeff and Dale (Earnhardt Jr.),’’ the boss said. “We’ve all met and everybody’s all fired up to be better next year. And all these other (teams in NASCAR) feel the same way.

“We have to see what unfolds as the year goes on, but I can tell you Jimmie is just as hungry as he was for the first one, and Chad is too.  This past week I’ve been talking to the guys about what they can do better, and I think they kind of motivate each other, knowing it’s going to a tough run next year. There were so many teams running well at the end of the year – the Childress cars, the Penske cars, the Gibbs cars – you know it’s going to be a dogfight.’’

Hendrick noted that adding 50-year-old Mark Martin to the team at the start of 2009 was a key to continuing the success.

Martin took over the No. 5 car, an entry that has limited success in recent seasons, and won five races and finished as the runner-up in the Chase for the championship.

“I said this way back, after being around Mark in the Nationwide car ( in 2008), that he would make our organization better, and he has,’’ Hendrick noted. “It’s amazing the talent he’s got, the dedication he’s got. He has made us all step up and he’s added a tremendous amount of insight into what the car is doing: this car, how you can drive it.

“He works with the other drivers and the crew chiefs. He’s elevated our whole program.  And it’s amazing to me that you can come in here with an new crew chief (Alan Gustafson) and be 35th in the points after the first three or four races and then have a run for the championship, go into the Chase leading the points and finish second. That’s pretty phenomenal for anybody and I think it’s just a credit to Alan and Mark. They’re going to tough next year. They’re good.’’

The big question for the Hendrick team is how to get fan favorite Earnhardt up to speed after yet another mediocre year. Driving basically the same equipment as his teammates, and with the same resources available, Junior failed to win a race and missed the 12-man Chase for the second time in three years, finishing a disappointing 25th in the points.

Hendrick chalked up a lot of Earnhardt’s failures to just plain bad luck.

“It drives me nuts because we have one transmission fail and it’s his, we have one valve spring (break) in the last 10 races and it’s his,’’ Hendrick explained. “It was like that all season.  I think Junior was ready for the year to end because we just felt like whatever happens, even if he runs good, something’s going to happen.  But, mentally, he’s 100 percent committed and he feels good.

Hendrick said that Earnhardt, who is 35, is also working hard on his physical conditioning.

“You get disappointed, but when there’s things that are changing, you’ve got a new year and you get to wipe the slate clean. He and I talk a lot and we talked before I came out here. He’s pumped up about next year and he’s got that spring in his step. But, I feel good about what we’re doing and I feel like we’re going to have a good year next year.’’

Among the changes being made is moving Chris “Sunshine’’ Heroy, the lead engineer from Martin’s No. 5 to the No. 88.

“We’re not just going back like we were,’’ Hendrick said. “We have actually merged more so than ever the 5 car and the 88 together. They’re shifting guys from team to team. Alan Gustafson is responsible for that car, just like (Earnhardt’s crew chief) Lance (McGrew) is.’’

“We need a good start at Daytona,’’ Hendrick said. “We need to feel mentally feel good about where we are. …That’s my focus for next year. I’m committed to that 88 car. The other guys are running well and they know the things they’re going to be doing. But I’ve met with Lance and Alan and Junior and you’re going to see a big difference in that team.’’

Hendrick, who knows that all streaks must eventually end, is also hoping that Johnson and his No. 48 can stay on their amazing roll.

“Realistically, how hard is it to run through a year without having more failures, more mechanical stuff, cutting more tires?’’ Hendrick added. “I mean, that’s what so phenomenal to me about Jimmie’s run. You can be really good, but racing luck plays a lot into that. You’ve got to overcome that, you’ve got the Chase. Do you stump your toe somewhere along the line? Mark proved you can stump your toe, have those failures, and come back.

“I think we feed off of each other. We know we’ve got to be better, looking at the teams around us and how they were running at the end of the year. Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and the Childress cars. I don’t think we went to sleep, they just caught up.

“We know we’ve got to go to work,’’ he continued. “All you can do is this sport is identify where you’re weak and work on it. And, if everybody continues to work together and we keep everybody focused in the same direction,  I think we’ll be competitive, and that’s about all I can hope for.’’

How about a 1-2-3-4 finish next year?

Hendrick laughed, saying, “Wow, that’s way out there. I’m just hoping we don’t lose too much ground.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, December 15 2009
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  • Marybeth says:

    Mike,
    “The big question for the Hendrick team is how to get fan favorite Earnhardt up to speed after yet another mediocre year. Driving basically the same equipment as his teammates, and with the same resources available, Junior failed to win a race and missed the 12-man Chase for the second time in three years, finishing a disappointing 25th in the points.”

    I do not see why next year should be any better as long as he is still at HMS…? Jr. is too talented to repeat another year like last, but only if he goes somewhere else. RH has said 3 or 4 times before that he is going to “fix” Jr.’s cars.
    Last spring Nascar Now started reporting that Tony Jr. was making Jr.’s car with 2007 DEI spec cars. When he was removed, RH said that he was going to ‘fix’ Jr.’s cars. I believed him. During the week the crew chiefs were switched, Nascar Now reported that since Jr.’s cars sent to Dover were the old T. Jr. cars and that HMS sent a truck with 2 of the newer HMS chassis to switch out. Those cars never made it to Dover. Instead they made a big deal out of the ‘brains’ at HMS were working on Jr.’s car…the OLD chassis cars.
    Carol Einarsson on 12/3/09 said “Biggest Disappointment – Rick Hendrick’s unwillingness to do what it takes to get Junior in the same equipment that Jimmie Johnson is in. Some have grumbled certain accusations that at first left me wondering, but I’ve since come on board 100% to believe – he doesn’t care if Junior wins or not because the sponsor dollars and souvenir revenues are there regardless. And really, you’re Rick Hendrick and you can make history with a four-in-a-row champ, or spend your company resources on a guy who remains popular whether he wins or not — what do you do? “
    Today Carol said: “Racejournalonline.com Carol Einarsson 12/15/09
    “CHEERS to Rick Hendrick no longer being a 50% partner in JR Motorsports. This part of the Danica story nearly flew under the radar, but now that Kelley and Tony, Jr. have bought ownership interest in the company, it’s one less tie that will have to be broken later when Junior moves on to a team that…..wants to help him……succeed.”
    In 2007 in F1, Alonso moved to McLaren. It became apparent by summer that the role FA had envisioned for himself, the 1st driver, when he signed the contract, was different from the one Ron Dennis saw, 2nd to Hamilton. RD realized that this is not what FA had signed the contract for and that he was not being fair to FA and was able to man-up and gentleman enough, fair enough, to let FA go after only 1 year on his contract. Hopefully RH can rise to the same standard.
    Marybeth