Pedley: There Were Few Losers In This Deal
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Rick Hendrick can drive a hard bargain. Hey, the guy owns car dealerships, like, coast to coast, so he’s been doing sell jobs for decades. But perhaps his biggest sales pitch came just a couple months ago. It was used against a reluctant mark named Mark Martin.
The pitch was long and intense and unbudging on Hendrick’s part, but when it was over, the seller, the buyer and perhaps all of NASCAR Nation, walked away with exactly what they wanted.
Heck, the deal has already produced Sprint Cup joy for Hendrick, Martin and every racing fan who loves to cuddle up with a feel-great story.
Hendrick told the story earlier this year as we sat in his motorhome, which was parked in the infield at Daytona.
He cautioned that he was not much of a story-teller, that he was kind of boring. He then told a beauty.
It began, appropriately enough, with another of NASCAR’s great behind-the-scenes thinkers, Jay Frye.
Frye, who this year has turned Red Bull from one of those teams which disappears faster than last week’s paycheck into a Chase contender, was working with (speaking of disappearing paychecks) Bobby Ginn at the time.
Frye told old-friend Hendrick that Martin, who was driving a part-time schedule for Ginn, would like to drive one of Hendrick Motorsports’ Nationwide Series cars at some point.
Hendrick said, “I would really like for Mark to drive one so we planned to just run two or three races that first year he was with Ginn (whose team was using Hendrick engines). And so, the first race he drove for me was Darlington.”
That Nationwide deal did not take much of a sell job. In fact, the deal came together quickly and painlessly thanks to some retro third-party mediation.
“Jeff Gordon came back from a tire test years ago and said that Mark Martin can drive a loose race car better than anybody he had ever seen,” Hendrick remembered.
So it was off to Darlington in 2007.
It wasn’t so much Martin’s driving in the Darlington Nationwide race which injected Hendrick with a shot of got-to-have-him, or even the second-place finish. It was Martin being Martin which did it.
“I was on the radio listening and he was just complimenting the crew and telling me what an honor it was and I told him he ought to be a car salesman,” Hendrick said. “But he was sincere and he had the crew pumped up and with virtually no practice and he ran second. He was running (the leader) down for the win and got out and said, ‘I let you guys down, I’m so sorry, that car should have won this race.’ I thought, man, I have never heard this before. It was like something I’d never heard before. I mean the guy had just finished second, worked all day long and is telling the crew he was sorry he let them down.”
That led to another Hendrick start for Martin in the Nationwide car, and it led to one of those friendships which auto racing just seems to generate.
“After that we started just kind of talking and really enjoyed being together at the race track,” Hendrick said. “He won that race last year at Vegas in the Busch car and I said I would put him in a (Sprint Cup) car in a New York minute if he would run all the races.”
And that would be the opening of negotiations between Hendrick and Martin.
It would also be the first mention of what would become the sticking point of the negotiations – “If he would run all the races.”
Martin was enjoying his life at that point. Dabbling suited the driver who had come up just this much short of winning a Cup championship on several occasions.
More importantly, dabbling suited Martin’s family.
Hendrick understood. But he was not about to let this deal walk away.
A year later, the pitch continued.
“I think he and his wife were standing by the car in Richmond,” Hendrick said, “and I said why don’t you agree to run all the races and I’ll put you in the 5 car and we’ll go win a championship. He said, ‘You know I can’t do that. Why don’t you let me run a partial schedule?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t do that, you’ve got to run the whole deal.’ He said I wished he could.”
So Martin walked away. The hook was set, however, and the barb was deep.
The two exchanged phone calls. But there was always that sticking point. Martin was about to turn 50 and though he was in fabulous shape, and though there was that unfinished business on the track, there was also great satisfaction in being a part-time driver.
It was the satisfaction generated by guarantees that he could race where he wanted (read: not Talladega) and when he wanted.
But then, well, dang that Alexander Graham Bell.
“He called me back and said he talked to his wife (Arlene) and he said, ‘Before I retire, I really want a shot at that car. I would just really like to be with you and your guys,’ “ Hendrick said.
Ah, the guys. Hendrick had a good group in place. A group that had won championships and races and respect and the right to be consulted about such things as adding another driver no matter who that driver was.
“I asked Gordon and Jimmie (Johnson) and this was the unanimous statement by all of our drivers. If you’ve got a chance to get him, you’ve got to put him in that car,” Hendrick said.
The deal was done and then it was road tested.
“His knowledge of the chassis is best I’ve seen, his feel,” Hendrick said. “He can get in a car and in three laps set it up. Alan (Gustafson, Martin’s crew chief) is one of the brightest guys we have and I just knew those two would click.”
Last Saturday night at Darlington, the clicking continued.
Martin won, Gustafson smiled, Gordon congratulated.
And Rick Hendrick, well, he doesn’t say much. Unless you ask him about Mark Martin.2 Comments