Joe Medley: Induction, then back to work for top Cup owner Hendrick
by Joe Medley
jmedley@annistonstar.com
May 03, 2013 | 2462 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TALLADEGA — Believe it or not, there was a time when Rick Hendrick didn’t feel like he belonged in NASCAR.

It was his first Daytona 500, in 1984, when he walked in as brand new team owner and gulped at the sight of established giants.

“It felt like I didn’t deserve to be there,” Hendrick said Thursday. “I shouldn’t be there, with the Wood Brothers and Junior Johnson, those guys, that won 200 races, 212.

“Then somebody told me this morning we’ve led 58,000 laps. I thought, that means you’re an old man.”

Old, maybe, but hardly fading in relevance. As of Thursday, Hendrick became that rare sports figure to reach Hall of Fame induction while still at the peak of relevance in his sport.

His Thursday included an International Motorsports Hall of Fame luncheon in Oxford and evening induction in at Talladega Superspeedway, along with former NASCAR driver Rusty Wallace, former crew chief Dale Inman and National Hot Rod Association legend Don Schumacher.

Hendrick will spend the rest of his weekend like he spends most weekends, as the owner with the most modern-era victories, running race operations for NASCAR’s most relevant modern-era team.

Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt rank among the top five in Sprint Cup points headed into Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 at Talladega. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is 14th in points but a Hall of Famer in waiting.

Johnson and Gordon have combined to win nine of Hendrick’s 10 Cup championships. Johnson won a record five in a row and leads this season’s points standings.

Counting the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, Hendrick drivers have won 14 titles — and counting.

“I’m not ready to retire,” the 63-year-old Hendrick told reporters at Thursday’s IMHoF luncheon.

Why would he, with a shop that has the talent and finances to stay on top for the foreseeable future?

Hendrick built it, from five employees to more than 500 working in a 430,000-square-foot shop. His operation stretches over two North Carolina counties.

He is well set up to face the modern challenges of team ownership in NASCAR.

“Your challenges are always, because the competition is so fierce, is to stay abreast of things that are happening and changing,” he said, “and make sure that you’ve got the talent in your organization to compete, whether it’s engineering or crew chiefs and then drivers.

“You’ve got to believe your drivers are as good as the rest of them, and you’ve got to give them equipment as good as the rest of them and pit crews. It’s just staying on the forefront of competition.”

This year, that’s meant making the quick transition to NASCAR’s new Gen-6 car.

“We always have some change, just not normally this radical,” Hendrick said.

The initial transition involved investment. Hendrick’s team had to cut the old bodies off more than 40 cars and install new ones.

“It was a huge expense and a huge amount of time,” Hendrick said. “Time is money, when you’ve got guys working seven days a week and two shifts to build the cars, and then you build them fast.

“You don’t have the time to massage them that you’d like to.”

Like all NASCAR teams, Hendrick’s has spent the season perfecting the cars after tests on various kinds of tracks. Along the way, Hendrick drivers have won three races this season.

Only Joe Gibbs Racing drivers have more with four.

Hendrick, who also owns Hendrick Automotive Group, likes that the new cars more closely match the appearance of cars the public can buy. It helps him sell Chevys.

He also likes that the Gen-6 cars “race close,” meaning driver talent becomes more important. He has a talented roster.

“You’ve got to have good pit stops, and you’ve got to have a crew chief that knows how to call a race,” Hendrick said. “Then, you’ve got to have a guy talented to drive the car.

“I always like to think I’ve got guys that, if you can get them even, they can handle the rest.”

Hendrick has the guys that help him stay at or ahead of the curve. His eye for talent and knowledge of cars have kept him at peak relevance, right into his Hall induction and what lies beyond.

No one questions that he belongs, and now he gets congratulatory calls from those former giants of the sport.

“This morning, Junior Johnson called me,” Hendrick said. “We’re friends, and he was one of the first ones inducted here.

“He was telling me about what he did that day. I really enjoyed talking to him.”

Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.
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