On Tuesday, Rick Hendrick throws a party for 700. He invites every Hendrick Motorsports employee to the vast room in the Hendrick complex to eat a free lunch and realize that he or she is part of something compelling.
Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne are there. Each of the four Hendrick drivers won at least one race this season and made NASCAR’s Chase, the season-ending playoffs for the Sprint Cup title.
Along with the food, everybody is handed a pair of rally sticks. Hold one of the inflatable sticks in each hand and an unknown force instructs you to slam them together.
The speaker is Herm Edwards, the former NFL coach who now is an NFL analyst. Think of the most morose human you know. Edwards would have that person banging sticks together as he or she dances, chants and cheers.
Edwards’ message: It took all 700 of you to send four drivers to the Chase.
What followed was a roar and the beat of 1,400 sticks. Hendrick, 65, says he felt as if he was at a massive pep rally.
A source says the rally was so inspiring that somebody stood at the front of the room and said something extremely funny about NASCAR points leader Brad Keselowski.
Hendrick sits at a long table in front of expansive windows high above the Hendrick Motorsports complex. When I invoke Keselowski, Hendrick begins to smile. Then he laughs. Then he pauses five seconds.
“You’d have to use anonymous on that,” he says. Then he laughs again. “You don’t want to quote me on that,” he says.
The Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, and Hendrick, who might be the most successful owner in team sports, will be there.
Who will you pull for?
“I’m pulling for Jeff to get No. 5, Jimmie to tie (Dale) Earnhardt (and Richard Petty by winning his seventh championship), Kasey to get his first and Earnhardt to get his first,” Hendrick says.
Is it like having four kids in the same competition?
“It’s exactly like that,” says Hendrick. “There are reasons I’d like to see Jimmie tie Dale. And I’d love to see Jeff get No. 5. The resurgence of Jeff Gordon has been unreal. And then Kasey, to see a guy get his first championship, and then Junior, and what it would mean to the sport, to everybody.”
In 2009, Johnson won the Cup championship. Mark Martin, then a Hendrick driver, finished second, and Gordon finished third.
Before the drivers went to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the final race, Hendrick talked to his drivers.
Says Hendrick: “I said, ‘Let me tell you guys what I’m going to do. When it’s over I’m going to go to the losers first and congratulate them on a great year. So it will be the third-place guy I go to first and then the second-place guy and then I’ll celebrate the championship.
“I wanted them to know that in advance because if I go running into Victory Lane to celebrate the championship, here’s the two guys that got beat (and) it will look like I don’t care about them. And when I get to Victory Lane I don’t want to look like I’m not happy.”
Several floors below Hendrick on this suddenly sunny afternoon, crew members run platoon-like down a street to a series of exercise stations. They could be football players; many of them were. One man leads and the others fall into place.
When your drivers are together, who leads?
“You know the way it works for those guys?” Hendrick asks. “Whoever was best the last week takes the chair because that’s who they want to hear from. If Kasey was the best car in Atlanta, then they want to listen to Kasey.”
“Jeff says Jimmie never calls him before a race,” Hendrick says. “And (a few weeks ago) Jimmie called Jeff to ask him something about the car. And Jeff said, ‘Hell, man, you won six championships. We’ve been trailing you all this time. And here you are calling me?’
“I think they’ve become good friends and they respect and enjoy each other’s company and I think that’s why they came to Victory Lane with Kasey when he won in Atlanta (two weeks ago to qualify for the Chase). I looked up and there they were.”
Here they come. Who are the competitors most likely to get in their way?
“You’ve got to respect how (Kevin) Harvick has run,” says Hendrick. “He’s been fast every week. And the two Penske cars (Keselowski and Joey Logano) have been fast. But then the Toyotas are subject to come on at any time. And you’ve got to watch all the Gibbs cars. But if you look at the momentum that’s out there today you’ve got to watch the Penske cars and Harvick.”
The new Chase format is designed to appeal to fans who love the quick-twitch end-of-the-season drama NASCAR often lacks. Sixteen drivers qualify and they’re eliminated four at a time until four remain. They go into the last race even.
Do you like the format?
“I like everything about it but the last one,” says Hendrick. “To me if you go into the final race and you won three or four races in the Chase you should get credit.”
Can you imagine the drama at Homestead-Miami on Nov. 16?
“Now you talk about pressure,” says Hendrick. “There’s never been the pressure that’s going to come with the last race because you’ve got four guys and it’s winner take all so you can get swept up in a wreck, you speed on pit road, you have a flat tire, all those things could happen, and the guy that’s probably the weakest in that crowd could be the champion.
“It’s an interception, a fumble, a pit crew guy tripping, and it could be the championship. I like it a lot better when we could build points and you go knowing you were going to win it or you had to finish 20th and you were in.
“But the fans want this. So this is the best thing. That’s the way the Super Bowl is. Undefeated team goes to the Super Bowl and one of the teams that kind of did not have the best year can knock them off. If I had known the Super Bowl would go the way it did last year I could have made a lot of money.”
A photographer asks Hendrick if he has time to pose for a portrait, and Hendrick asks if he wants to take the picture downstairs, where the cars are. The photographer courteously asks if Hendrick has time to go down there.
Look at Hendrick’s shirt, I say. On the pocket, in black letters, is a message: Hendrick Motorsports. This is Hendrick. If he wants time, he has time.
“I’m the boss here,” Hendrick concedes as he steps into an elevator.
He points to the Hendrick logo on his light blue shirt.
“When I go home,” he says, “there’s a Mrs. in front.”