Owner Hendrick primed to take home sixth title

If things break the right way this weekend, Rick Hendrick will win his sixth championship at NASCAR's highest level. For Jeff Gordon, it will be his fifth title, even if it does come with an asterisk.

No, Gordon won't be winning the Nextel Cup championship this year -- at least not as a driver. But since he's technically listed as the owner of teammate Jimmie Johnson's car, he'll have a share of the championship just the same.

Gordon played a role in Hendrick hiring Johnson and helped lobby Lowe's to come aboard as sponsor. His ownership came through a deal with Hendrick, whose Hendrick Motorsports fields those two cars as well as two other full-time Cup teams.

Hendrick had to wait until 1995 for his first Cup title, which was won by Gordon. Terry Labonte won the following year, with Gordon taking the top spot each of the next two seasons. Gordon won again in 2001, but HMS hasn't taken the top spot since.

Johnson came up eight points shy of the title in 2004, the first season for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Now, with a 63-point lead over Matt Kenseth entering the Ford 400, it's Johnson's title to lose.

Asked where this title would rank, Hendrick -- naturally -- said they're all special.

"You know, you win three or four in a row and then all of a sudden you think it's easy and then you go through a drought, and then you have a year like '04 where you come so close, and then last year" with just one car in the Chase was tough, Hendrick said.

Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the Chase this year, with both Gordon and Kyle Busch joining Johnson. Those drivers, though, have had it tough in the Chase, which is why the organization's hopes come down to Johnson.

Eighth in the Chase after contact from teammate Brian Vickers sent him crashing into Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Talladega, Johnson's miraculous run of a win and four second-place finishes in the last five races has put him in front. With two runner-up finishes and two fifth-place efforts in his first four seasons, Johnson has been poised for this moment.

That's why Hendrick can't wait for it to get here.

"It's going to be special because we were just so frustrated to be right there at the door a couple of times, three times, and just not close the deal," Hendrick said on how he'll feel if Johnson closes the deal on Sunday. "It's going to be special for Jimmie.

"I think he's going to make a great champion. He's just a great guy, and I think he'll be a great spokesman, and I know he is for our company. He's just assumed a leadership role with some of the younger guys. I just hope he can close the deal and we don't have any bad luck. I think you're going to see him be one of the best champions that NASCAR has had."

If not for his share of bad luck, maybe Gordon would have been fighting it out with the car he co-owns. But since he's not, he's aiming to win the race while Johnson takes the title.

At least that's Gordon's dream scenario for the weekend.

"It's amazing to see what Jimmie and the entire No. 48 team have done," Gordon said. "They have been a championship-caliber team from the beginning, and Rick Hendrick deserves a lot of the credit.

"I can take credit for talking Rick into hiring Jimmie, but Rick is the guy who provides us with great leadership and all the tools needed to win. I'm still a racer and would prefer to be battling Jimmie for the championship. But since we're not in contention, we're hoping our teammate wins it for Hendrick Motorsports."

Although Jack Roush has won championships with Kenseth and Kurt Busch, Hendrick is looking to see a third driver claim the title. He gives Labonte much of the credit for that, saying he brought something to the organization that helped put it over the top -- even if Gordon won Hendrick's first championship a year before Labonte claimed his crown.

Hendrick said Gordon has helped Johnson, but the key is having the proper mix of wise crewmen and talented drivers.

"It's super-competitive today, and just to see so many guys that are capable of winning races and winning championships, I'm real proud of the organization," Hendrick said. "I think they have done a good job of learning how to be prepared to enter this kind of deal."

"It's super-competitive today, and just to see so many guys that are capable of winning races and winning championships, I'm real proud of the organization. I think they have done a good job of learning how to be prepared to enter this kind of deal."
-- Rick Hendrick

With numerous business interests to attend to, Hendrick can devote only so many hours a week to his race teams these days. He's not deciding how to make the cars run fast, but the role he plays is just as vital.

Hendrick sees himself as the one to work with the various department heads to make sure the right personnel are in place. It might seem as if any top-notch mechanic, engine builder, crew chief or engineer would want to work for HMS, but Hendrick knows it's not that simple.

That's because other teams looking to improve figure the easiest way to do so is to hire away people from the elite teams.

"You have people that have opportunities. Your car chiefs get opportunities to be crew chiefs other places," Hendrick said. "… If you ask any owner, keeping the chemistry right and keeping people together and not having constant turnover and growing your people [is crucial]."

Chemistry isn't easy to achieve; it can be even harder to maintain. That's why Hendrick finally hopes Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are celebrating a title at Homestead.

"To me, that's the single most important thing that I look at right now, is if we can't win this thing, can we keep everybody together, fired up and come back next year more determined and at least with everybody working toward that same goal?" Hendrick said.

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com.