Even after 30 years in NASCAR, it’s still all about winning and people for Rick Hendrick

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In the last 30 years, Martinsville Speedway has figured in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick.

In just its eighth start, the fledgling Hendrick Motorsports earned its first-ever win at the .526-mile paper clip-shaped bullring on April 29, 1984.

Hendrick’s first driver, Geoff Bodine, brought home what would be the first of 219 Sprint Cup victories to date.

Sunday’s STP 500 will mark the 30th anniversary of HMS’s first win as a team.

Martinsville has also been the site of 16 Sprint Cup race wins for Hendrick Motorsports, including eight apiece by Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, part of 21 overall HMS wins that have also included NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip and Bodine.

At the same time, Martinsville will forever be etched into the darkest, deepest and most tragic recesses of HMS legacy. It was just a few miles away from the racetrack, back in 2004, that a HMS airplane crashed into nearby Bull Mountain, killing all 10 occupants onboard, including Hendrick’s only son Ricky Jr., older brother John, John’s two daughters, HMS general manager Jeff Turner, HMS chief engineer Randy Dorton and four others.

Rick Hendrick has been a success in both business (chairman of the Hendrick Automotive Group, which now has 80 franchises and over 10,000 employees) and NASCAR racing, where his teams have won 11 Sprint Cup championships.

But 30 years is 30 years, a long time in anyone’s book. Still, Hendrick remains pretty much the same today as he did when he left his native Warrenton, N.C., to start building his empire.

And even though he has branched out into selling other brands of cars to consumers, one thing has remained constant with Hendrick: he started selling and racing Chevrolets and continues to do so today.

“We are extremely proud of our partnership with Rick and the Hendrick Motorsports organization,” Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, said in a statement. “Rick’s success over the past three decades is the result of his passion, persistence and emphasis on teamwork to get the job done.

“As a result, Hendrick Motorsports has 272 wins and 14 NASCAR Owner Championships (both categories including the Nationwide Series) – all with Chevrolet. As a key partner and respected friend, we congratulate Rick and Hendrick Motorsports on 30 great years of racing and winning.”

Not coincidentally, Chevy is also the winningest manufacturer in Sprint Cup racing at Martinsville with 52 wins, with HMS leading the way.

Friday at Martinsville, Johnson reflected upon his boss’s success, as well as the sadness that is still as fresh today as it was on that fateful October day in 2004.

“It’s always exciting to come back to Martinsville and with this being the site of Rick Hendrick’s first win, 30 years of Hendrick Motorsports and obviously 2004 with the plane crash, there is a lot of motivation when we come to this race track,” Johnson said. “It’s great to be back and it’s nice to know that this track is strong for the Hendrick cars and very strong for myself.

“We would love to check the win column box (on Sunday). We are certainly close and we were knocking on the door last weekend and I think we have had a couple other looks at wins. I think we are really understanding this 2014 package and getting some speed out of our cars and we should be contending and racing for wins I believe.”

And although the plane crash was a decade ago, it still feels like just yesterday, Johnson said.

“Absolutely we are sad that the aircraft went down and we lost everybody that was on the airplane, but I am finding today that there are a lot more happy stories as we are reflecting back,” Johnson said. “Especially of thinking about little Ricky and the crazy stuff he would do and the stunts he would pull on his dad.

“There’s a lot of laughter, and I would assume if one of the Hendrick drivers get to victory lane, it would be a very joyful celebration and emotion. Rick and Linda would probably shed some tears later in private, but from a team standpoint, and everybody at HMS, it would be a very uplifting experience.”

Someone who has watched HMS grow from both an outsider and eventually insider point of view is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who joined the organization in 2008 after a failed attempt to wrest the company his late father started, Dale Earnhardt Inc., away from his stepmother Teresa Earnhardt.

“It’s been interesting to see how Hendrick Motorsports has progressed and changed and evolved,” Earnhardt said. “They were tough competitors when I was young going to races, watching my father race.

“They seemed like they had so many resources and they had quite the dynamic when it came to drivers. It was just a team that always was going to be challenging for the win and challenging for championships, especially once Jeff (Gordon) got there they were almost unstoppable at that particular point in the ‘90’s.

“Ever since Jeff (Gordon) got there they have never fell off. They have always maintained their status as one of the top teams with a lot of growth and success. I think that is a credit to the people working there, management, just a lot of great decisions putting people in key positions.”

HMS now has somewhere in excess of 500 employees. If there’s been one constant that the company patriarch has always stressed, be it in his auto dealerships or his race teams, it’s getting the best personnel and letting them do what they do best.

As a result, loyalty is perhaps the biggest attribute within the organization and it starts at the top, according to a story in USA Today.

“He’s a very loyal guy,” Gordon told USA Today. “If you need something, and you’ve been there for him, he’ll take the shirt off his back and do whatever it takes for you. He really respects loyalty, but he also knows how to read if you’re the right person for the job or not.

“He can be around somebody for a short period of time and tell you right away their strengths and weaknesses. If their strengths outweigh their weaknesses, he’ll give them the opportunity to show their strengths.”

Earnhardt had his choice of rides when he let it be known in 2007 that he was looking to leave DEI. Many observers felt the obvious choice would be Richard Childress Racing, where his late father won six of his seven championships.

But there was just something in Hendrick’s personal touch that ultimately swayed Earnhardt in his direction and not RCR’s. It’s the same for Earnhardt as it is for all of HMS’s employees.

“Understanding people’s talents and being able to maximize their potential just in management and other key roles in the company,” Earnhardt said of Hendrick’s essential hands-off policy, letting employees carry the ball they’ve been given and running with it.

“Obviously, Rick has an influence on his employees,” Earnhardt added. “Everybody really strives from the top to the bottom to give their best. It’s a cliché but it’s so true when you actually get to work there and get behind closed doors and see the influence that he has just on individuals. Everybody just pushes so hard to do something good every day. It makes everybody else’s job that much easier. It’s just good reflection of his influence on the company as a whole, but yeah it’s fun being a part of it.

“All those years as a young kid before I drove and then as a driver competing against them you always wonder what is the culture like. Then when you get behind there and see how they are working on their cars, how they set their cars up, for year’s you have wanted that access. To finally have it it’s pretty mind blowing in certain areas. It’s been a fun experience for me.”

Ironically, it was Earnhardt’s own father who Hendrick courted heavily back in the early 1980s when he was putting together what would become NASCAR’s premier racing empire today.

“When I first got in, nobody wanted to work for me,” Hendrick told USA Today. “(The late) Dale Earnhardt shook down my first car, thought about it a little bit but knew he’d have a better opportunity with Richard Childress. As you start winning races, you get opportunities and more people.”

And winning races has become not just a measure of success at HMS, it’s become an obsession, not to mention championships. Look at Johnson: he’s won six of the last eight and is going for a seventh this season.

If he achieves it, he will tie the late Earnhardt and Richard Petty for most Sprint Cup championships (seven) – and most likely in the shortest amount of time and wins, as well.

Johnson is a prototypical example of Hendrick’s sixth sense. When Gordon approached the boss, saying he should give this former motorcross rider from Southern California a look-see, a sentiment that was seconded by Rick’s late son, the elder Hendrick did what he has done countless times: he took yet another chance.

And the rest is NASCAR history.

“I was willing to try whatever,” Hendrick told USA Today. “If we dreamed it, we tried it. So many teams have blinders and want to stay in a rut. We weren’t afraid to step out. I tell people I used to throw for the end zone every time I got my hand on the ball. I’m not quite that brave anymore.”

If Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt or Kahne end up in victory lane on Sunday, it will be further extend the Hendrick winning legacy not just at Martinsville, but throughout NASCAR.

There’s been a lot of good times, and some sorrow. But through it all, Rick Hendrick has stayed constant to his life, his family, his business and most importantly, his people.

For when you’re with the best, you too are the best.

“Maybe I should have gone to school to be a psychiatrist or something,” Hendrick told USA Today. “I try to get the people to believe in the good of the company. People think it’s corny, but I believe in that family atmosphere.

“We look after each other and go through the tough times and celebrate together, and it builds character in the organization. I’m as proud of the relationships as the trophies and championships because we’ve done it together.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

 

Friday’s first test at Indy got month of May prep underway

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Last Friday saw the Verizon IndyCar Series take to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time in 2017, with a Honda manufacturer test and Team Penske team test occurring on a warm, if windy, day at the 2.5-mile oval.

There’s always some elements to be learned from the test but considering the wind plays such a role at IMS, it was hard to read too much into the speeds, which Honda did release afterwards.

For what it was worth, Graham Rahal led the way in his No. 15 Penngrade Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 227.182 mph, or 39.6159 seconds.

The speeds and times released by Honda are below. Team Penske, in a team test, opted not to release its times. For the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pair, James Hinchcliffe didn’t run in the afternoon owing to the high wind gusts while Mikhail Aleshin ran only limited laps.

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on Monday, May 15.

SPEEDS

1. 15-Graham Rahal, 227.182
2. 9-Scott Dixon, 226.126
3. 10-Tony Kanaan, 225.794
4. 83-Charlie Kimball, 222.890
5. 8-Max Chilton, 221.829
6. 5-James Hinchcliffe, 220.049
7. 7-Mikhail Aleshin, 219.191

PHOTOS (all via IndyCar)

DiZinno: Dear Chip, you like winners… and Larson at Indy could be one

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Remember when you occasionally wrote open letters requesting things in hopes they could one day come true? Here’s my open letter for May, 2017, which I address to one of this country’s most successful racing team owners in Chip Ganassi.

Dear Chip,

Hi, it’s me, Tony. We’ve had occasional interactions as part of media roundtables in the past. I’m the young one in these sessions who could probably be misidentified as a PR type.

But because I have had some PR experience in the past, and because I like to think I’m somewhat knowledgeable about options that could try to help move the needle for the Verizon IndyCar Series, I would like to suggest a storyline that I’m sure you’ve thought of but never fully pulled the trigger on.

Kyle Larson. In a fifth Ganassi IndyCar this May for the 101st Indianapolis 500. Doing “The Double.”

You like winners. This is one hell of a winning storyline, and thanks to Larson finally getting his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of the season on Sunday in his home state of California, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, I think the door should be open for him to do so.

It’s one of two big-ticket races that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams participates in that Larson hasn’t done yet, the other being the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And with no disrespect to the French endurance classic this summer, Larson’s not realistically going to bring as much potential buzz there as he would for a race that needs another spark or big-time storyline this year.

But Indy? Indy needs Larson. And it needs something that will enhance the storylines that are on the verge of happening this year, which are great inside the largely Indiana-heavy bubble of IndyCar observers and fandom, but don’t really penetrate the national sphere beyond that.

Larson is at the phase in his NASCAR career where he’s just now entering that potential stratosphere – he’s finished first, second or third in six of the last seven races, and the only time he didn’t was when he was leading the Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel on the final lap.

Like Kurt Busch in 2014, he’s got a win early in the season, which also will guarantee his spot in the NASCAR playoffs provided he makes an attempt to start every race (or even if he doesn’t, as there have been occasional exemptions the last couple years) and stays in the top-30 in points. Considering he’s leading the points right now, he should be fine there. With a win, he can afford to have one or two off weekends results-wise… even if the prospect of him doing the “double” with the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day means he could still star in both.

Larson is also used to the frenetic travel schedule of racing in one place one day, another place the next day, so on and so forth from his short-track days. It’s how he entered the NASCAR radar to begin with and why he entered with as much hype as he did. You already have a partnership with Cessna; getting Larson to-and-from Indianapolis and Charlotte from a logistics standpoint could be organized.

And here’s the thing that’s really exciting to think about – Larson is an absolute animal in cars with low downforce. It’s part of why he’s succeeded as much as he has in NASCAR this year, as the package has changed to a primary low downforce setup.

You need to have some downforce in an IndyCar, particularly at Indianapolis, but the prospect of Larson hanging out an IndyCar planted – or sideways – at 230-plus mph is utterly tantalizing. How much would Larson dare to trim out? We can only dream.

He’s won races for you in other series before. Beating a field of sports car full-timers at the Rolex 24 at Daytona meant he had to do at least three or four hours of drive-time, if not more, to help carry a car to victory which he did with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Jamie McMurray in 2015. So he already knows the fabric of what it’s like to work with Dixon and Kanaan.

Kimball, Larson and Ganassi last May. Photo: IndyCar

He made a cameo appearance last year on a practice day when Charlie Kimball changed his number from 83 to Larson’s NASCAR number of 42 to go along with a promotion for his partner, Tresiba. It was a fun story, but it wasn’t nearly as big as if it had been Larson in a 42 car in May. Here’s what Larson said at the time.

“I would love to. I was always a big Indianapolis fan growing up. I think mainly because my dad is a huge Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar fan.

“To me, I think this is the biggest race in the world by far. Yeah, I would love to race it someday, you know, be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s got so many different types of vehicles, you hopefully get the opportunity to run someday.

“Been lucky enough to run in the Rolex 24-hour race and win that. It would be incredible just to start the 500 someday in my future. But it’s more up to the guy to my left than me.

“He’s been a great car owner for me. Hopefully someday, after I win a Cup race, two, or three, a championship, I can run the Indianapolis 500.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 25: The #02 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Target/Ford EcoBoost Riley driven by (l-r) Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon receive Rolex watches after winning The Rolex 24 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on January 25, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Since the time of that quote, May 16, 2016, Larson’s won two Cup races – one last year at Michigan and now one yesterday in Fontana. He could and should well be a championship contender this year.

Here’s where we get to the important part of the pitch though: the commercial value in the deal. And the reason you’re as successful as you are is that you’re good at business, for your partners.

I can tell you it’s not good for business that we’ve talked and written ad nauseum about Scott Dixon – one of the greatest drivers of his generation – not having a full-time sponsor announced yet to replace Target, which left the IndyCar side of the program at the end of 2016 after supporting your team for 27 years. In your words at Mid-Ohio last year, Target was the “greatest sponsor ever.” But yet here Dixon’s been in a plain white car, which quoting the POTUS if I may, is “Sad!”

Could Target be convinced to come back for one more ‘go-round at Indianapolis, with a car that we expect is going to be a better fit for the 2.5-mile Speedway with the Honda aero kit and engine than it was last year with your competitor?

Or could Cessna, which hasn’t had its own primary sponsorship effort in an Indianapolis 500, be persuaded to step up as a natural primary backer of an effort that will require many Cessna air miles to make it happen?

LONG POND, PA – JUNE 2: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Cessna/NTT Data Group Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway on June 2, 2016 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

You’re already very good at navigating the field to where you can run Hondas in IndyCar, Chevrolets in NASCAR and Fords in sports cars. I don’t know how you do it but I’m impressed that you can maintain successful relationships with the manufacturers that allows you to pull this off.

Since Busch ran a Honda in his 2014 Indianapolis 500 outing and a Chevrolet in NASCAR, the driver/manufacturer crossover has been successfully navigated once before. That Rolex 24 win in 2015? That was in a Ford… and Larson drives a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so he’s worn different manufacturer gear in the past as well.

And Honda will likely need to run 18 cars to make up the field of 33 this year. You can tentatively pencil in 17 of those 18 cars, but one of the existing teams is almost guaranteed to have to add an extra car in order to ensure there’s enough entries.

You’ve got the crew from your sports car program – your team ran a fifth car as recently as two years ago for Sebastian Saavedra alongside the full-time four. Many of that crew came from the IndyCar side to begin with. Brad Goldberg could engineer the thing because he’s helped Kimball to success in the past, including his lone IndyCar race win.

And with no disrespect to Saavedra, Larson would be better for the overall business and buzz of the race.

You guys won this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona for Ford, after having won Le Mans in June, which completed a back-to-back sweep of 24-hour races.

But because a certain old “retired” driver won in a Cadillac, and that overshadowed his own co-drivers, the Ganassi/Ford win at Daytona didn’t generate as much ink as it could have.

You like winners. I like writing about winning storylines.

Larson’s stock and availability given the factors at play isn’t likely to be as high as it is now to run an extra car for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Michael Andretti and Roger Penske can’t generate all the attention at Indianapolis this May, Andretti as the defending champion owner and Mr. Penske with five cars for the first time.

They both will be running five cars. Why not you, as well, to match?

If you can make it happen, Chip, it might be the biggest win IndyCar gets this season.

Yours sincerely,

TDZ

Vettel doesn’t only just win race, but F1’s Driver of the Day honors

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There was no controversy or surprise over the first Driver of the Day vote for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix in 2017. As in the race, Sebastian Vettel swept to victory in the fan vote put together by Formula 1’s official website.

Vettel pushed Lewis Hamilton early in the race and Hamilton pitted sooner than he’d probably have expected, with Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari completing the “overcut” to move ahead and win the race.

Out front, Vettel gapped the field by several seconds and was never challenged from there, en route to his and Ferrari’s first win since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix.

The win was Ferrari’s first at Melbourne since 2007 (Kimi Raikkonen) and Vettel’s first there since 2011. In both cases, the driver that won the race went on to win the World Championship.

Stroll gets laps around Albert Park, but DNF in first F1 GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Lance Stroll almost got to experience the full package on his first weekend in Formula One, hitting speeds exceeding 320 kph (199 mph), clipping a wall, being handed a grid penalty and skidding through the gravel. All that was missing was the finish.

The 18-year-old Canadian didn’t make it to the finish in his debut for Williams at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, retiring after an eventful 40 laps around the Albert Park circuit.

“We were running a decent race and the pace was pretty good,” Stroll said. “I had a good start, which was risky although I didn’t plan on it being quite so risky! Some guys braked quite early in front of me and I managed to gain some places.

“Then we managed to have a surprisingly good race. It was my first race, and first weekend, so there are a few positives to take out of it.”

Stroll graduated from development driver to a seat in F1 this season for Williams, which lost Valtteri Bottas to Mercedes.

The son of billionaire investor Lawrence Stroll is mentored by former Ferrari sporting director Luca Baldisserri and won the Formula 3 European championship in 2016.

His first taste of the top level was one he put down to experience, having started at the back of the grid after getting a penalty for needing an unscheduled gearbox change following his crash in practice on Saturday.

“Unfortunately, that incident yesterday cost us a lot of positions in qualifying,” said Stroll, whose top speed was among the fastest in the race, “but today I enjoyed myself and so a big thank you to the team.”

His Williams teammate, 35-year-old Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa, finished sixth to earn some points from the opening weekend.

Stroll avoided a collision with two other drivers on the opening lap and, after an early pit stop for tires, was running as high as 13th before a problem with his front left break ended his race.

“It’s a shame for Lance, who put in a good first drive with some overtakes in his first race in Formula One, so it is a shame that he then had to retire with a brake failure,” Williams chief technical officer Paddy Lowe said. “Clearly that’s an issue we need to get on top for the races to come and make sure we don’t have a repeat.

“But, overall, congratulations to the team … who have built a great car to launch our 2017 campaign.”

Meanwhile, Sauber rookie Antonio Giovinazzi placed 12th on his F1 debut after coming in as a late replacement on Saturday when Pascal Wehrlein withdrew because of fitness problems.

“It was a good race, and I am happy with my performance,” Giovinazzi said. “My objective was to gain more experience and collect mileage in the car. I want to thank the Sauber F1 Team and Scuderia Ferrari again for this opportunity. It was an amazing race weekend for me.”

Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn said it was an impressive performance from the young Italian driver in his first F1 race.

“He showed his potential as well as what the car is capable of,” Kaltenborn said. “The lap times were quite satisfying.”