Rick Hendrick met with the media Tuesday after his team swept the board in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, claiming the top three championship places with Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. Here are some of the highlights:
Q. Rick, now that you've gotten all these records under your belt – you've got finishing one, two, three in the points this year, the four-time consecutive champion. You've got two four-time champions under your belt. What goals do you have that you could possibly fulfill next?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, this year I would like to have seen Jeff [Gordon] win number five, Jimmie win four straight, and Mark [Martin] win his first one. So I think my priority right now is the 88 team [of Dale Earnhardt Jr.]. We're working on them to try to make that team stronger. The goal going into next year now will be win races and get all four teams in the Chase.
So, I feel real good about the fact that we're rolling into the year with virtually no changes. You know, seeing the competition get stronger, so much stronger, like the Childress cars and the Gibbs cars are there all year anyway, and the Penske cars. It's going to be a dogfight. You know, we know we're going to have to be on our toes and work hard here now in the off‑season.
But we're very, very thankful for what we've gotten done. These guys kind of set their own goals. You know, I believe that as soon as they finished this one, Chad [Knaus, Johnson's crew chief] was thinking about number five, and Jeff and Steve [Letarte, Gordon's crew chief] are thinking about beating those guys. The planning and the execution have already started.
Q. Speaking of Dale Jr., have you guys put your finger on what it is that you need to do to make him more competitive?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, you see this happen. I've seen it happen with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie had a slump back around last year about the time we were in Vegas. You just go through these. We know we can make the team better, and it's frustrating, and it's…. You know, the driver begins to think that no matter what he does, that something's going to happen, because we've had failures, we've had wrecks. If it could happen, it happened to that team.
It's been really frustrating because about the start of the chase, the team was running better. It was probably the best car in Loudon, and it got swept up in a wreck. And we've had all the motors and all the transmissions and gears done in the same place. We had transmission failure, and we had a motor failure. The other guys didn't experience that in the Chase.
So when he's running good, something happened. And we just got to be better all the way around. I think when we do that, when Dale sees that we've stepped up in a lot of areas, it will give him the confidence he needs. So we're all over it, and we've been all over it. But it's really one of my focuses here. My priority – my primary focus here starting this week, starting Monday, really.Q. Can you just talk a little bit about having this kind of success on your 25th anniversary in the sport? And I guess taking a broader view, if you could weigh in a little bit on the increasing foreign influence in the sport between Toyota, Juan Pablo Montoya's success, and the possibility that was talked about foreign ownership in recent months?
RICK HENDRICK: I guess it happened so quick. When you win a championship and you start a new year, you never take for granted – I never do – that we're ever going to win another one. You see the level of competition out there, and you saw it in that race Sunday night. It was an unbelievable race with as many guys capable of winning.
You can't cash the check until the race is over. You know, you worry about something happening to Jimmie. It was a little bit of a comfort – a lot of comfort, I guess, knowing it had to be one of those three. But I just think we had a lot of racing left this year, but the guys work so hard and I'm so proud of them.
Their teamwork and the way they worked together, and to compete against each other week in and week out and share information, I think that really made me proud and happy for the whole organization.
I think the fact that you're seeing drivers like Montoya coming in and ownership maybe from other parts of the world, just speaks to what an outstanding, or how worldwide this sport is.
I got a call from Tom Cruise, who is shooting a movie in Austria, I think, Sunday night, to ask about my niece [who is currently hospitalized following liver transplant surgery -Ed.] and to congratulate me. He was watching it on some kind of – on satellite, I guess. So, when you have people from all over the world following it and wanting to be a part of it. Drivers from Formula 1 and some of the best talent in the world coming into the sport, it just speaks for the way our sport is viewed by other people.
I think from the manufacturers that are coming in, I think it's all good. I think it helps support other teams and it makes for a lot of competition.
I think it's good to see all of the interest worldwide. I think it's good to have the other manufacturers coming in. You know, it just speaks for the health and the success of NASCAR.
Q. I want to ask you about Jeff Gordon really battling it out with Jimmie Johnson. That moment – I don't know if you were able to see that, maybe not, but I'm sure you heard about it. How are you able to keep all these guys and all these teams around?
RICK HENDRICK: Jeff and Jimmie, they battle – they battle hard. They battle each other hard. It's almost like two brothers wanting to beat each other. I see that with Kyle and Kurt [Busch], and how hard they race each other in a race.
But, you know, they do it in a clean way. It always scares me when I see two of our cars running each other that hard. You [imagine] one of them slipping and taking the other one out, because that makes for a bad Monday morning. But I like the fact that they want to beat each other and the competition is kind of internal here.Q. I know how important team guys are to winning a championship. But what is it that has you able to keep these guys? You said very little is going to change – that's really hard to do year after year. You've been able to do that. What's your secret?
RICK HENDRICK: I think that's priority one for me. I think our people are the biggest asset. If you can keep it together and tweak it, it's much better off than tearing it down and rebuilding it every year. It slows you down.
I've seen this happen in my career here. You can have all-stars together, there's no guarantee they'll work. I mean, you can guess the best so‑called crew chief and best driver in the garage area and put them together, and that's not necessarily going to work.
What I've tried to do is promote tweaking it rather than rebuilding it. I'm a fix‑it kind of guy rather than a strip it and rebuild it kind of guy.
Maybe I procrastinate sometimes too long, but I want to make sure that we make the right decisions. I have to give the guys credit. I mean, they – I think it helps that Stevie and Alan [Gustafson, Mark Martin's crew chief] and Chad grew up here, and Lance [McGrew, Earnhardt's]. I think that it helps that they're not putting their resumés out. At least, I don't know about it!
And, the drivers putting together with Jimmie a year, year and a half in advance to know that we're going to be racing together through the 2015 season. We can get the sponsors in place, the drivers and crew chiefs in place, and you don't have to worry about how the chemistry is going to work. I worked really hard in that area.
It's a situation where they want to be here. They've got to believe in the place. They've got to believe in each other. That's kind of a chemistry and kind of a mission statement. I think the communication between the guys is the best it's ever been.
I see guys who came in here as unknown mechanics grow up and actually run the company. I think when you do that everybody has a voice and everybody has input. Every driver we have signed off on Mark Martin [joining the team]. When we do crew chiefs, Ken House will get around to the other guys, and make sure it's compatible. Because we don't want to do anything to tear the place down. We want any change we make to be a positive for everybody. So it's more of a democracy here. When you have the ability to have a vote and have input, you have to make your decision work. So it's like co-signing a note. We all co-sign them together.
It sure helps us having three cars in the Chase. We lean on each other a lot. For example, we had a failure in the 88 car with the valve spring, in the race before California. Our guys went back and pulled a batch of springs, and I put them on the airplane with me and eight engine tuners and we flew to California and changed all the springs on all our cars, including Tony [Stewart]'s two cars to make sure that we didn't have another problem. You get that kind of routine over years of experience and preparation. You hopefully have something that bites you or doesn't bite you again.Q. When you look at declining TV ratings, and while it can be argued that competition is strong, there seems to be a perception out there from a number of fans that it's not, and that's kind of leading to their waning interest in some of the events. As a businessman, when you see that kind of a downward trend in those particular areas, how does one reverse that? Is it something as simple as getting the word out in a different way? Is it this is not going to change unless changes are made to the car or things like that?
RICK HENDRICK: When I look at it here in these buildings sitting over here in the middle of the woods, I think, man, this is a single-purpose building. It has 600,000 square feet of it. You know, you can't sink half a ship. You want the sport to be healthy and vibrant and growing because, you know, it's better for all of us. That's why I like seeing different manufacturers come in and so forth.
I think NASCAR has made some good adjustments this year. I think the Chase was a good thing. I may not like it some years, but I think it's a good thing. I think the double-file restarts are going to help the fans and the excitement more than anything else. It's just one of those things that you never know how it's going to end up, because when they have a caution with 10 or 20 laps to go, and you've got guys hungry up there and you've got all of the leaders bunched up together, you see them racing each other as hard as you saw down in Florida.
So I think that's going to help us. I think the fact that we're getting ready to start a new year off, the economy's better, I think that we are going to areas that we need to pick up on, and we will. I also think the rivalries are helping. I think having Montoya and Stewart go at it, you know, or Denny [Hamlin] and Brad [Keselowski] go at it, I think that's kind of good. I think it stimulates a lot of interest.
You don't want to see guys out there wrecking each other, but rubbing and gouging a little bit and trash talking, I think that's pretty good. I may be kind of by myself on that, but as long as it's not one of my guys, I kind of enjoy it. Anyway, I think the sport – I think NASCAR has done some things this year that's really helped.
I think the car – there are some things that we might be able to do for downforce that will help it. Hey, I went to a town hall meeting and had half the drivers saying take downforce away. The other half were saying add downforce. So, we can't even agree on anything.
But I think the level of competition here in the second half of the Chase with the Childress cars coming on, with the Penske cars running good…. If Denny Hamlin didn't have the problems he had, he would have been right there. I think it's going to be a pretty exciting year next year. There are a lot of hungry drivers, and the competition is fairly fierce.
As a businessman, I always worry about the health of our sport. But I think we're doing everything we can do to make it better. Hopefully we're going to see it in the ratings and the attendance. At the good racetracks, though, I looked up in the stands at Bristol and it was packed. You know, good crowd at Phoenix. The crowd looked good at Homestead.
Q. It may be tough to judge while it's still in progress, but how do you think Jimmie's run will be considered in the context of the sport's history? How should what he's accomplished in the last four years be judged?
RICK HENDRICK: I don't think people really start looking at where a driver ranks until he's retired or down the road. I mean, I watch David Pearson, and I knew David Pearson was great. And I knew that Richard Petty was unbelievable. But you don't really give them their time in the sun or acknowledge how great they were until after they retire or they quit winning.
I think when you look at Jimmie's stats, I don't think he's through. I think he's better this year than he was the year before. He just gets better all the time, he and Chad both.
So I don't think he's through setting records. I think he got to say, with looking at what he's accomplished, and he was eight points away from this one being number five in a row. He's got to be one of the greatest of all time. And I'm not saying just in this type of racing – I think with big guys like Montoya coming in, and other Formula 1 guys looking at this sport, and IRL people, you know. It's kind of the place the guys want to be.
Q. Why is Chad Knaus able to sustain that intensity level the way he is where Ray Evernham felt like he needed another challenge and had to move on?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, different people respond different ways. Chad loves what he does. He enjoys being in the middle of the team.
Now, the way we work together, he's got input into four teams, not just one team. It really wasn't quite that way when Ray was here. It was more individualized than it is today. So he enjoys the box. He enjoys being the field general. He likes working with Jimmie. So I think Chad really would be bored doing anything else, and he spends about 20 hours a day, seven days a week planning for the future.
He was talking to me by text Sunday night, because I was in the hospital with my niece. He was already talking about 2010 and some things he wanted to do. I thought, “Man, you ought to go celebrate this one!” But it amazed me how the guys are right back in here Monday morning, digging again. Getting ready for next year.