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

 

McLaren ‘a little behind’ on 2018 F1 car plans after delayed engine call

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McLaren racing director Eric Boullier has conceded the team is “a little behind” in developing its Formula 1 car for next year after only finalizing its 2018 engine plans last week.

McLaren saw its long-running engine saga end in Singapore when it agreed a deal to end its current Honda supply and link up with Renault from the start of next season.

The move is expected to give McLaren a lift in performance and allow it to fight further up the field, but the delay in being finalized has put the team slightly behind schedule in developing its new car.

“We are flat out working on the 2018 car. There are a lot of changes in terms of layout of the engine, so we have to redesign some of the parts we already had in our mind,” Bouller told the official F1 website.

“We are a little behind in terms of decision. I would have loved this decision to have been made a couple of weeks ago.”

McLaren will no longer enjoy exclusive works status in 2018 as it has done with Honda, with Renault also supplying engines to Red Bull and its own factory team.

Boullier remains confident of a strong partnership between McLaren and Renault, though, and is sure it is the best path for the future.

“We are ‘privileged customers’ with Renault. We have the same engine and access to information as Enstone or Red Bull Racing, so this is a real partnership with Renault,” Boullier said.

“We also have the possibility to work with them – to put ideas in the box for the future that might be taken into consideration. That will allow us to influence in the future. But yes, a full works team is different from our situation in 2018.

“But it is like in school: you look at the plusses and the minuses, and looking at all the plusses and minuses we made our decision, which we believe will be the best one for McLaren for at least the next three years.”

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

Photo: IndyCar