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CONCORD, N.C -- It must be nice to be Rick Hendrick these days.
Over the past three weeks, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports has picked up his 200th career victory, won the Sprint Pit Crew Challenge and the Sprint Showdown, collected a cool $1 million for winning the Sprint All-Star Race, played an "air guitar" on stage with country music star Brad Paisley and opened a new dealership in Charlotte.
Short of being passed over for NASCAR's 2013 Hall of Fame class and not winning "American Idol," life has been perfect.
"This has been like a birthday every day," Hendrick said.
|Rick Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally made it back to Victory Lane together -- even though it was after a non-points race.|
Hendrick can thank Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team for most of these gifts. In case you haven't noticed, the five-time Sprint Cup champion is on a mission like we haven't seen since he was trying to win his first title in 2006.
He and his team have won every event entered since Mother's Day weekend at Darlington -- including the pit crew competition -- and they're likely to continue that roll in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Johnson has six wins.
"Everybody's working hard," Hendrick said. "Everybody's got the same tools. It really comes down to the people and the communication and the commitment and the gut, who wants it the worst."
A few months ago, there was almost a woe-with-me mentality inside the walls of the HMS facility, a stone's throw from CMS. Johnson was digging himself out of a hole from a 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500. Kasey Kahne was blowing engines or being wrecked at seemingly every turn. The same for four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
The most positive thing about the year was Dale Earnhardt Jr. consistently ranking in the top three in points. And even that was perceived as a negative by many because of his losing streak, which has grown to 140.
Hendrick felt the negativity from reporters constantly wanting to ask him what was wrong. Matt Kenseth actually sent him a text after Johnson's milestone win at Darlington that said he "was beginning to feel sorry for you."
Don't feel sorry for Hendrick. He still believes what he said back in January, that all four of his drivers will make the Chase, that he'll be standing on stage after the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway holding another championship trophy.
But at least for now he's taking a rare moment to enjoy this run. How else do you explain him taking a joy ride with Johnson after the All-Star Race and pretending to pick a guitar with Paisley?
|Rick Hendrick took a victory ride with Jimmie Johnson following the five-time Cup champ's All-Star win at Charlotte.|
"His intensity is there," Johnson said. "I'm really proud to see him sit and enjoy his 200th win, to savor and enjoy the time in the moment. It's not like him to do that type of thing.
"But this week we're back to business. Rick is Rick and he'll be focused on winning more races and trying to win a championship. I'm sure we'll all be reminded of that soon."
You can't blame Hendrick for enjoying the moment. Thinking about the thousands of miles he traveled to make sure he didn't miss the 200th win like he did the 100th and 150th makes you tired. He was in more states before getting to Talladega in time for the final 10 laps than a politician on Super Tuesday.
And this from a man who in November broke four ribs and his shoulder when the private plane he was aboard ran off the runway during a landing.
"It's been crazy," Hendrick said.
But Hendrick didn't get to be the top owner in the garage by resting for long. This week he has been busier than ever entertaining sponsors and supporters, and trying to get all four of his teams in Chase contention.
"It's not about the money," Hendrick said. "It's about the commitment and the will to do whatever it takes."
Hendrick has the will. And he imposes his will on others. During Tuesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony for a dealership in Charlotte, he asked Kahne if he was going to win the 600. Kahne said he hoped to.
"That's not good enough," Hendrick said with a laugh.
Kahne, typically reserved, responded by saying he would win.
"Getting people where we don't have to focus on why we haven't done something," Hendrick said of his challenge for the rest of this season. "We've still got a mountain to climb with Jeff and Kasey, but I still feel the same I did first of year.
"I never had four cars that can lead all the time."
The standings don't show it with Gordon and Kahne -- 24th and 16th in points -- but they have been strong at times this season. Gordon had the Martinsville race won before Clint Bowyer dive-bombed him and Johnson on a late restart. He has led 338 laps, second in the series to Johnson with 502.
If Junior wins Talladega, I will get on the roof. I will let them tie me to it. I'd probably spend the night down there and then run for governor.” -- Rick Hendrick
Yet Johnson is fifth in points because he's been able to rack up top-10s (eight) and avoid disasters like the one on the second lap of the opener.
Earnhardt has, too. He's third in points with eight top-10s and what's shaping up to be a career-best average finish of 8.4.
It wouldn't surprise anybody if he won on Sunday. Remember, he led on the final lap a year ago before running out of gas. If he does, look for Hendrick to do something crazier than his one leg in the car, one leg out with Johnson.
Then life really will be good.
Fortunately for Hendrick, Talladega is in his rearview mirror until the Chase.
"If Junior wins Talladega, I will get on the roof," Hendrick said. "I will let them tie me to it. I'd probably spend the night down there and then run for governor."
Yes, it's good to be Hendrick these days. He wasn't disappointed about not getting into the Hall of Fame because he believes there are others more deserving, even though statistically they aren't, and because he knows he'll get there one day.
"I'm not done," he said.
Far from it. The past three weeks are an indication that NASCAR's top organization is back on its game, that the sport's top team (48) is back on its game.
Because of that, we could see Hendrick celebrating another birthday on Sunday.
"You can't let up," he said. "You can't take your foot off the gas in this sport. You've got to have a commitment -- the championships and wins are what you're all about."
Yes, it must be nice to be Hendrick these days.