Commentary

Hendrick went S.W.A.T. on Junior

Updated: June 21, 2012, 8:13 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- You'd think if one of Rick Hendrick's dealerships didn't sell a car or make a profit in four years he'd clean house -- at least sell or shut down the operation.

You know, take the Donald Trump approach.

You're fired.

If you thought that, you'd be wrong.

When one of Hendrick's dealerships struggles, he sends in what he likes to call his S.W.A.T. team to fix the situation, not rip it apart and start over.

"Rick is not a guy that goes in and fires people and gives up on something," says Ray Evernham, who won three Sprint Cup championships as the crew chief for Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports and continues to work with Hendrick in his automotive businesses.

"When he has a dealership that is underperforming, he sends in a team that helps the dealer find out what's wrong. He keeps working on systems and people until he gets that right. Rick doesn't like to give up on people."

That's why Hendrick stuck with Dale Earnhardt Jr. through a four-year, 143-race losing streak that ended on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, even though it didn't always make complete business sense. He applied the same philosophy to NASCAR's most popular driver that he would any of his dealerships.

And it's working.

Earnhardt and the No. 88 team have gone from the sport's biggest butt of jokes to what NASCAR president Mike Helton referred to on Sunday, and many others have since, as the leading contender for the championship.

"The more I get involved in Rick's business stuff the more I understand why he is successful at motorsports and why he doesn't make changes," Evernham said. "He keeps working on helping the people get things in order.

"That doesn't mean he's going to piss away money if he doesn't see progress. But sometimes he sees progress where other people don't see it."

Hendrick always has seen something in Earnhardt, even when he was having meltdowns with former crew chiefs Tony Eury Jr. and Lance McGrew, even when a top-10 finish was like a victory instead of an average day -- as it has become this season.

He said he believed that when Earnhardt failed, it was more his fault than the driver's, although nobody in their right mind would have thought so.

"It's hard to explain other than I knew he had talent and I knew he could do it," Hendrick said of his driver, who is four points behind leader Matt Kenseth in the point standings. "I did not want it on my resume that I ruined his career, that I let it happen under my watch and go down in history as the guy that took him out of DEI and couldn't get him going.

"I was just hell bent that was not going to be on my resume."

[+] EnlargeRick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Davie Hinshaw/Charlotte Observer/MCT/Getty ImagesYou could see success was nearing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and team owner Rick Hendrick when Earnhardt won the Sprint Showdown to get in the All-Star Race last month.

So Hendrick called on his NASCAR version of the S.W.A.T. team. He came up with what he thought Earnhardt needed -- Speed. Will. Attitude. Team.

But in this case, Hendrick handled it personally. He made one of the most drastic moves of his career, putting Earnhardt in the same building with five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and giving him Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte.

Many thought it was a desperation move. It turned out to be brilliant.

Letarte has had the kind of positive impact nobody imagined. He has earned the complete trust of a driver who has trusted few throughout his career. He has given him the kind of confidence you only see in champions.

"Rick had that vision," Johnson said. "Rick is the one that moved that around and made it happen. It's been a great pairing. They're showing what they can do now. There's going to be a lot more success to come."

Johnson has been a part of Hendrick's business savvy before. Toward the end of the 2005 season, he and Knaus were so frustrated with failing to win the title that they were taking it out on each other.

So Hendrick called them into his office for the infamous "milk and cookies" speech.

"He said, 'All right boys, if we are going to act like children, we are going to have some milk and cookies and we are going to go over there, lay down and take a nap in a little bit and we are going to sort this out,'" Johnson said in one of the countless times he has rehashed the story.

It worked. Johnson and Knaus formed a bond tighter than ever, then went on to win an unprecedented five straight titles.

"I mean, he is so good at managing people in general," Johnson said of his boss. "That's one of his strongest attributes, being successful in motorsports, also what he's experienced in the business world."

But Earnhardt was a different challenge, the biggest challenge of Hendrick's career as he often has said. Because of his popularity, the expectations were so much greater. Fail and everybody will notice.

Earnhardt also was different in that he didn't outwardly trust people. Even though he believed Hendrick to be the right owner to give him a title when he left his late father's company after the 2007 season, there still wasn't complete trust.

So when Earnhardt said he wanted to keep Eury as his crew chief, Hendrick let him even though he wasn't convinced it was the best move because it showed Earnhardt he trusted him. When that failed, Earnhardt returned the favor.

"He's not the kind of guy that you're going to walk up and say, 'This is the best deal for you. Trust me. This is the best crew chief in the garage,' " Hendrick said. "He's got to work himself through it mentally. You can't lead him but so much. He will stop you.

"It's a great trait. He just doesn't take stuff for granted. He's guarded. But he knows that I'm out to give him the best stuff I can. He knows I'm going to help him out the best way I can … in life and everything else."

That's one reason you don't hear Earnhardt raising his voice on the radio as he did with Eury and McGrew. He has developed the same kind of trust in Letarte that he has in Hendrick.

That's why when Earnhardt got on the phone with Hendrick at Michigan in Victory Lane, the first thing he did after chiding him for not being there was thank him for being there all the way.

"Thank him for sticking with me and getting me back to Victory Lane," Earnhardt said. "He went through hell and high water to make it happen."

[+] EnlargeRick Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesWhen team owner Rick hendrick and driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. came together professionally in 2007, it was about business. It's turned into something more personal.

Actually, Hendrick was in Michigan earlier in the day and planned to be there for the race. But when rain postponed the start for two hours he left to get the pilots back to Charlotte and ready for another business venture early Monday morning.

"In one way, I'm glad I wasn't there because nobody got to put the camera on me and see how nervous I was those last 20 laps, because I was climbing over chairs, around chairs, about to go nuts," said Hendrick, who watched the race from home.

Hendrick was nervous like a father watching his son. In many ways, he looks at Earnhardt like he's his son and vice versa, which is only natural since Hendrick tragically lost a son and Earnhardt tragically lost his father.

"There's a bond there that goes far beyond business," Evernham said. "It's a friend thing. It's a respect thing. It may be a father-son-type bond."

But in the beginning it was about business. And even when this looked like a bad business decision, Hendrick never wavered. He worked harder at righting Earnhardt's ship than he did keeping the others that were having success headed in the right direction.

"I don't like it in the car business if I have a franchise that's not doing well," Hendrick said. "I don't want to sell it to somebody else and they do really well with it and I don't want to just say, 'Oh, well, I didn't have much time to do it.'

"I'm upset because I failed and someone was successful."

So Hendrick fixes dealerships just like he fixed Earnhardt's team. He applied the business sense that has made him worth an estimated $200 million to a personality that the sport can't put a price on.

You can see the difference. Earnhardt has Speed, a Will to win, a positive Attitude and a Team like he has never had before.

And like any good employee having success, he's happier in all aspects of his life -- including social as we saw with the way he held Amy Reimann in Victory Lane.

It's all because Hendrick refused to let Earnhardt become a bad business deal.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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