CRANDALL: Can Hendrick find a road back to the top?

Image by Kinrade/LAT

CRANDALL: Can Hendrick find a road back to the top?

Insights & Analysis

CRANDALL: Can Hendrick find a road back to the top?

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In 2007, when Hendrick Motorsports was winning NASCAR Cup Series races hand over fist, team owner Rick Hendrick shared a thought with one of his organization’s communications representatives.

“I remember telling Jesse (Essex) one time when we won 18 races in a year, ‘You know, they’re getting tired of seeing me in the media center, so I don’t want to go in there anymore.'”

Hendrick laughed. “And then all of a sudden there’s a drought, and I thought, ‘I’ll never say that again.’ It’s been tough.”

Hendrick’s four-car organization was at the top of the NASCAR Cup Series mountain for years. From 2010-14, Hendrick Motorsports claimed 43 victories, the wins seeming to come as easily as they did often. Championship feats were no different, and those came in bunches: four straight from 1995-98; another in ’01; five straight from 2006-10; yet another in ’13; again in ’16.

But it all changed. Over the last five seasons, 2015-19, the team reached victory lane just 25 times, with a three-wins-only low point in 2018.

A Hendrick car has not been represented in the championship race since Jimmie Johnson won his seventh title in 2016.

Today, Hendrick Motorsports is the one doing the chasing, digging deep for checkered flags, battling to lead laps, and searching for week-to-week consistency. In the meantime, a new team has taken over at the top of the Cup Series: Joe Gibbs Racing, which surpassed Hendrick’s 2007 single-season win record by notching 19 wins last year.

Jeff Gordon’s 1995 Cup title marked the start of a long golden era for Hendrick Motorsports. Image by LAT

“It makes you work harder,” says Hendrick. “We got behind. Chevrolet got behind. Then we brought in a crop of young guys, and I knew it was going to be a building process. We’ve worked and (done) things, like we built a new facility (putting all) the crew chiefs and engineers together. We broke up Chad [Knaus] and Jimmie; (had) to go through that.”

The new facility was a major renovation, Hendrick moving all four teams into the same shop instead of the previous split between two different buildings.

Bringing everyone together, a common area was added just outside the shop floor with offices and meeting space. Communication is easier now, with everyone under one roof.

Those young guys? Chase Elliott was next in line after Jeff Gordon retired. Alex Bowman took over for Dale Earnhardt Jr. William Byron was slotted in as Kasey Kahne and Hendrick split.

“I think we’re better than we’ve ever been,” Hendrick observes. “We’re closer than we’ve ever been. I’m not saying we’re as competitive as we’ve ever been, but we’re closer as a unit. Chevrolet has made a big commitment: the Tech Center’s going to be a great thing. Wish it was four years ago, but, hey, better late than never. Their commitment is strong, and I’m excited.”

Said commitment includes a new Camaro for its teams this year, the ZL1 1LE. Sunday in Las Vegas, many Chevrolet teams ran toward the front, including Hendrick. While only one Hendrick car finished inside the top 10, all four were in contention for better results had racing circumstances not intervened.

In a way, that’s how Hendrick views what happened to his organization last year.

“It’s hard when you lead all the laps, and then, all of a sudden, you’re struggling to lead (one) lap,” Hendrick says. “It makes you appreciate it. It seems like we’ve worked harder when we’ve been behind then we did when we were winning.

Byron’s Duel win gave the team an early season lift. Image by Miller/LAT

“We won four races last year, which is not a ton. I think we’d have been a lot better in the playoffs, (but) Chase broke a couple motors. I think he maybe could have advanced to the final.

“It’s one of those things. You accept it, but you don’t like it. I’m not coming to a racetrack and spending a year of my time if I can’t win. That’s just the competitive side of me. And I’m not here to hang out. We’re all that way, but the competition is fierce: Toyota’s got a great team. Ford’s got a great team.

“It’s hard, and it’s going to be hard. But I feel good about where we are, and I’m excited about the future. I hate to see Jimmie hang it up, because of just his contribution to the sport and to our company, and the kind of guy he is. But we’re determined to give him every opportunity to go out the way a champion should.”

For Hendrick, there was no one moment of clarity that his organization’s dominance had faded away. Or even that it was heading in the wrong direction.

“It’s not (so) much that we got off-track; we were kind of the same,” Hendrick says. “The competition got better, and they got better stuff. I saw it in ’16. You could look at Jimmie and say, ‘Hey, we just weren’t there. We didn’t lead as many laps (though we did end) up winning the championship.’  ’17, we could really see it. And ’18 – the same: We had high hopes, but we couldn’t close the gap.

“Toward the end of last year, you saw us coming on, leading and winning races. You look at road courses where all this aero is not that big a deal, and we’ve got three guys running up front, so that gives us a lot of hope.

“It’s humbling. I look at football teams like New England — the Patriots. As they get old and people leave or other teams get better, they’re doing what they usually do; but it’s not good enough. That’s kind of the way we were. It is about the competition. They got better.”

He looks for a much better year in 2020. Hendrick engines took the top four spots in Daytona 500 qualifying before Byron and Johnson finished 1-2 in their Duel race, which Hendrick says led to some celebrating back at the shop.

Celebrations have been few and far between for Hendrick and his organization in recent years. If wins were to start rolling in again, Essex and others would not find their boss worried about his post-race obligations.

“Everybody’s excited this year, and the team is better together,” the Hall of Fame team owner concludes. “I think regardless of how it ends up, we are a tighter group, we are more committed to each other; and so, we’ll just go to battle and see what happens.”

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