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Sunday, November 16, 2008
Updated: November 17, 10:49 AM ET
Eye for talent, business savvy propel Hendrick to the top of his game

By David Newton
ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Rick Hendrick wasn't counting on another championship as he made his way toward pit road before Sunday's Sprint Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

He wasn't counting on anything.

Too nervous.

"This reminds me of the time when Tom Cruise invited me to the Academy Awards," the owner of Hendrick Motorsports said. "They had a big party planned afterwards to celebrate. When he didn't win, it was more like a morgue than a party.

"I remember standing around and people looking at each other, going, 'What happened?' Just my luck. The first time I get invited to the Academy Awards and the party didn't happen."

There was no such disappointment on this night.

Can you say "Party all night long"?

Jimmie Johnson finished 15th to earn his place in NASCAR history as only the second driver to win three consecutive championships. But as impressive as that sounds, Hendrick's accomplishments are equally -- perhaps more -- impressive.

He won his eighth owner's title in the past 14 years, moving his organization within one of NASCAR's record of nine, held by Petty Enterprises. One could argue Hendrick is close to becoming the greatest owner in motorsports history, reeling in Roger Penske, a 14-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

But Hendrick doesn't see it that way. He never envisioned winning one championship, much less eight, when he entered his first car in NASCAR's premier series in 1984.

"You know, I don't feel any different than when I won my first race at Martinsville," said Hendrick, recalling Geoffrey Bodine's victory in the eighth race of 1984.

Maybe that's because he has done little but win since. He has 175 career victories -- almost as many as Jack Roush (112) and Joe Gibbs (68) combined -- and his drivers have accumulated just shy of $280 million in race earnings.

Rick Hendrick
Rick Hendrick on winning another title: "I still can't believe we've got eight of these things."

He's the only owner to win three or more championships in a row, and he's done it twice -- four straight from 1995 to 1998 between Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, and three straight now.

"To be in this position is a little overwhelming," Hendrick said as he accepted hugs and handshakes on pit road. "I was so lucky to have met people like Harry Hyde in the beginning. You don't know a Jeff Gordon is going to be that good. Or Jimmie Johnson."

There is no luck to it. Hendrick is where he is because he has a great eye for talent and an unbelievable feel for running a business.

When Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were ready to implode during the 2005 season, he called them into his office for a snack of milk and cookies on plates with Mickey Mouse ears. He told them if they were going to act like children he was going to treat them like children.

"There's still times, but they have learned to kind of live with each other and how they like to communicate with each other, so that was a big turning point," Hendrick said. "Actually, the meeting was supposed to be how we split the guys up and which team they were going to."

Regardless, Hendrick pulled that team together, just as he pulled the entire organization together after the tragic plane crash that took the lives of his son, brother, two nieces and seven key employees in 2004.

When the organization as a whole was struggling earlier this season, he canceled vacation plans during an off week to go testing with all four teams.

"He certainly set a high bar there for us," said Roush, after watching his driver Carl Edwards win his ninth race of the season but finish 69 points behind Johnson in the title chase.

"I don't know anybody -- with the nature of this new car -- if any owner will win as many races in the near [future] as he's won in the recent past."

Roush appreciates what Hendrick has accomplished more than most because it took Roush 16 years to win his first Cup championship after he had won titles in almost every form of motorsports prior to that.

"It really came as a real shot of cold water, a dose of reality, to really figure out how hard it is to do this," he said. "Rick has built a strong organization. He's got a great balance between organization and engineering and drivers."

Gary Johnson can't imagine where his son might be without Hendrick.

To be in this position is a little overwhelming. I was so lucky to have met people like Harry Hyde in the beginning. You don't know a Jeff Gordon is going to be that good. Or Jimmie Johnson.

-- Rick Hendrick

"The best thing about Rick, do you see him when they get out of the winner's circle and Jimmie gives him a big hug?" he said with a proud smile. "He's like family. That's so cool. He cares. Rick really cares about his people.

"That's really big."

But perhaps Hendrick's greatest strength is that he takes nothing for granted. He's always thinking of ways to improve, and he still gets nervous before every race as he did Sunday.

"When they line up and start is when I'll wear out my shoes going back and forth down pit road because I can't stand still," Hendrick said.

He was so nervous on this night that he spent almost the entire race on Jeff Gordon's pit box, not once going to the No. 48 stall.

"I didn't want to be in the middle of it," Hendrick said.

But Hendrick is in the middle of putting together a dynasty that shows no signs of slowing up. He has four drivers -- Johnson, Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin -- who are capable of winning the title next season. He doesn't have the financial woes of many owners, making enough money from his auto dealership empire that he doesn't need partners or mergers.

"I don't care what business you're in; it's all about people," Hendrick said. "If you can keep the group together, people motivated and try to get a little better and you've got chemistry that works, that's the key.

"I don't care how good a crew chief or a driver is; when you've got two that are really on the same page working together, it's a magical combination. I just hope we can keep it going."

This didn't happen overnight. Hendrick endured 12 seasons before winning his first title.

"I never thought I would win a championship," Hendrick said. "You want to do it and you think you might, but when you look at the competition you kind of figure it's never going to happen.

"When it did, it was really special. I still can't believe we've got eight of these things."

Believe.

Hendrick is finally letting himself believe this one is reality, although he's not counting on anything for next year.

"Carl," he said of the Chase runner-up, "has already told me next year is going to be exciting."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.