Hopefully, Rick Hendrick won't have to wait as long for his 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup win as Roger Penske did for his 100th IndyCar Series victory, which came several years after the 99th. That scenario doesn't seem likely, given the talent on the four Sprint Cup teams that Hendrick has put together featuring five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, most popular (and improved) driver Dale Earnhardt Jr and 2012 newcomer Kasey Kahne.
Hendrick just completed his 28th year in the sport and, while five victories over the course of a 36-race season is nothing to sneeze at, it's not quite what the doctor ordered to keep Hendrick happy and his racing business healthy. "We sure would have liked to close it out a lot better, but we just have to ramp it up now and get ready to go next year," he said.
While Hendrick Motorsports didn't get its sixth consecutive title in 2011, it supplied equipment to Stewart-Haas Racing's Chevrolet effort, which did win the title, giving owner/driver Tony Stewart his third Sprint Cup title on a tie-breaker with Ford man Carl Edwards. "I think most of the equipment in the garage area is pretty even; I'm real proud of our engine shop for winning it six years in a row and I think the people make the difference. You don't have to look at the motor shop," Hendrick confirmed, "you don't have to look at the chassis shop. You've got to look at the people and what adjustments they're making, the commitments of the drivers and how bad do you really want it. I, personally, think it's not a bad thing."
With electronic fuel injection coming to NASCAR in the coming season, Hendrick doesn't think his resources can get him an advantage over programs from Toyota, Roush-Yates and Penske's Dodge camp. "We've spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to be prepared, and we've been to all the tests and have gotten good feedback," he said. "But there's just so many smart people in the sport now and the resources are so deep everywhere, I don't think we'll be ahead of anybody."
Hendrick intends to keep his teams intact for the coming season, with the only change being the addition of Kahne, who replaces Mark Martin in the No. 5. Of the three returning drivers, only Earnhardt Jr failed to secure a victory under the Hendrick Motorsports umbrella. After placing Steve Letarte as crew chief for Earnhardt this year Hendrick noted, "These two guys really like working with each other. I've seen some really good runs and then some areas where we've kind of fumbled he ball a little bit. I think we've got a good combination there and it'll get better. I'm happy with the progress and looking forward to next year; I think we'll be better still."
After his accident in early October where the private plane he was riding in missed the runway and crashed at Key West, Fla., Hendrick is recovering slowly but surely. Four weeks after the accident, "I'm doing pretty good. I broke four ribs and my shoulder, but trying to sleep and move and getting therapy, it takes most of the day. I'm not a spring chicken any more, so I don't bounce back quite as quick. I'm going to take it easy here for a few more weeks - we're doing good. Just need a little more time."
Going into the Key West airport, the plane had brake failure, he explained. "We went off the end of the runway. Somehow my seat belt was on and something came loose in the seat itself. I hit the bulkhead and my wife (Linda). Broke four ribs and my clavicle, but we were fortunate. It's a short runway down there; you sense something is wrong, but then it happened so quick you don't have time to react."
He won't be making the trip to Las Vegas for NASCAR Champions Week, thanks to this accident - and the fact Hendrick won't be at the Champion's table for the first time since 2005 has to be galling. Still Rick Hendrick takes it all in stride and is gearing up for, maybe, a new dynasty?
© 2011 Anne Proffit