Keselowski and Hendrick : What might have been
On April 18, 2009, Mark Martin won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway . It was the 36th NASCAR premier series win for the 50-year-old driver and his first with team owner Rick Hendrick . A week and a day later, Brad Keselowski won the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway . It was the first career win for the 25-year-old, and the first premier series victory for independent car owner James Finch. Two distinctly different races won by two distinctly different drivers. Martin's NASCAR career was beginning to wind down; Keselowski's, on the other hand, appeared to have only just begun. But there was one string that tied the two together -- Hendrick Motorsports . HMS was home to Martin, Jimmie Johnson , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . And it was expected by many to be the future home of the up-and-coming kid from Rochester Hills, Michigan. But a collection of factors that came together throughout the course of that season altered the racing landscape as well as the career path of Keselowski. It would be nearly three years before the next driver change at HMS. By then Keselowski had not only found a new home, but he was also on his way to winning the Sprint Cup championship. 'I WAS NOT GOING TO LOSE' The sun was out and the grandstands were packed when the 2009 Aaron's 499, the season's ninth Sprint Cup race, went green for the final time. As race leader Ryan Newman tried to keep Earnhardt Jr., the crowd favorite, in check, Keselowski darted to the inside behind Carl Edwards on the track's massive backstretch. It was a move that didn’t seem to mean much at the time. But at the start-finish line with two laps remaining, Edwards and Keselowski shot to the outside entering Turn 1. "Here they come; look at the 99 and ..." NASCAR on FOX analyst Darrell Waltrip began. " Brad Keselowski ," lead announcer Mike Joy and co-analyst Larry McReynolds chimed in. When the white flag appeared, Edwards and Keselowski had caught and were beginning to pull away from Newman and Earnhardt Jr. Racing back through the tri-oval, Keselowski turned his No. 09 Chevrolet to the outside, and then quickly dropped to the bottom as Edwards moved up to block. Realizing the bottom lane was now open, Edwards reacted quickly -- but not quickly enough. Contact sent the No. 99 Ford spinning. Edwards' car came off the track briefly and was beginning to settle back onto the track it was struck by Newman's Chevrolet. The impact sent Edwards roof-first into the frontstretch catch fence. Meanwhile, Keselowski kept his foot in the gas, racing across the finish line for the win just ahead of Earnhardt Jr. "I was not going to lose," Keselowski said in his post-race winner's interview. "I was not going to lift and (I was going to) hold my ground and consequences be damned." A full-time competitor at the time for JR Motorsports (which, coincidentally, counts Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick among its ownership group) in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Keselowski said he didn't know what the future held after his first premier series win. "I know I don't have anything locked in," he said. "That's really all I can say ... I don't have a job secured for next year, and everything to this point has been wait-and-see. I know this certainly can't hurt." But behind the scenes, moves were already underway. Finch's Phoenix Racing, which purchased it engines from HMS, had put Keselowski in the car at the suggestion of Hendrick . And the JRM/ Hendrick pipeline, which grooms talent in the lower series to help restock the Sprint Cup program, was taking root. Keselowski had made two starts for Hendrick the previous year, and would make seven all together in '09, in addition to five races with Finch. Perhaps his future wasn't as cloudy as it appeared. " Rick had come out and told me, actually had made it a point to say to the media that he thought I was a future driver at Hendrick ," Keselowski told NASCAR.com recently. There was only one problem. SWAN SONG? On July 4, 2008, HMS officials announced that Martin had signed a two-year agreement to drive the organization's No. 5 Chevrolet. According to the news release, Martin, who would run a full schedule in 2009, would "run a partial Sprint Cup schedule ... in 2010, sharing the No. 5 Chevy with a to-be-determined second driver.” By most accounts, that driver was expected to be Keselowski. But in May of '09, less than three weeks after Martin's Phoenix victory, HMS officials announced a revision to the '08 agreement. The veteran driver would return in 2010 to once again run the entire season. With Keselowski waiting in the wings and Martin winning and agreeing to return the following year, " Rick was kind of half pregnant," Keselowski said. "He (was) stuck. "My feeling was, after I had won Talladega, I'm going to get this 5 car ride partially next year, pair it with something else, let's go. I didn't know what it was going to be. We'll figure it out; let's go." A phone call and subsequent meeting with Hendrick , however, changed all that. "I was kind of expecting more of a 'Hey, we're going to expedite the process of clearing out the rest of this,' " Keselowski said of the meeting, "And instead I got a 'Hey, I don't have a ride for you. You need to figure something else out. I'll try to help.' "That was late April, early May of that year. My intent ... was to give him that time to kind of make right on it somehow, find a ride because he had made me the promise that I would have that car. It didn't sit all that well, but I understood the circumstances and so forth." Months passed and Keselowski busied himself with his full-time XFINITY Series effort at JRM while making a handful of Sprint Cup starts for Hendrick and Finch. Hendrick , in the meantime, was exploring the various avenues that might keep Keselowski in the HMS camp. Possible scenarios included Stewart-Haas Racing , at the time a two-team effort, and Red Bull Racing. Consideration was even given to fielding a Sprint Cup entry out of the JR Motorsports shop, according to the owner. But the pieces didn't fit and as the summer wore on, Keselowski's future remained uncertain. "I wanted him to wait a year," Hendrick told NASCAR.com. "... I don't remember all the details, but I do remember that Mark had done so well, and I had tried to talk (Mark) into staying. "I've told all our guys, the first time I sat down with Brad he impressed me because he was so intense about the whole car and wanted to be involved in everything. He was just so committed. I told our guys he's got the right attitude about racing and driving. I just needed him to wait." Waiting, though, wasn't part of Keselowski's plan. "My perception is a driver is a lot like a perishable fruit," Keselowski said. "You've got so much time, then he spoils and goes bad. There are a lot of variables, much like anything." PENSKE COMES CALLING The Keselowski family has always been involved in racing. Brad's father Bob was an ARCA Series standout and a former winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Ron Keselowski, an uncle, scored two top-five finishes in 68 premier series starts while older brother Brian Keselowski has one or more starts in all three of NASCAR's national series. "We knew the Keselowski name from being here in Detroit," Walt Czarnecki, an executive vice president at Penske Corp., said. "His dad, his uncle, all that. They would run out at MIS ( Michigan International Speedway ) when (Penske) owned the track." But it was a business associate, lawyer/agent John Caponigro, who brought up the young driver's name during a conversation in 2009. "We thought he was committed to Hendrick ," Czarnecki said. "He'd been on loan to James Finch to run several races. But some things were changing." Conversations with Keselowski ensued, in Michigan as well as Mooresville, North Carolina, where Team Penske is headquartered. "All this time," Czarnecki said, "Still having this somewhat uncertain situation with Mr. Hendrick ." Team Penske had grown from a two-team to a three-team organization in '08, fielding cars for drivers Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr . In '09 Newman departed to join owner/driver Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing and 32-year-old David Stremme was brought on board to fill the open seat. But the Keselowski opportunity was intriguing, according to Czarnecki. "We've tried to sign on what we consider to be the best available young drivers with a great deal of potential that we could mold and have them grow in our organization," he said. "And I think that Brad certainly fit that description. "But above and beyond that, he had a bigger vision as to what role he wanted to play in terms of the development of the team. ... Just how he saw different things coming together ... "Some of it may have been a little unrealistic; some of it was certainly the enthusiasm of a young man who had a goal in mind. ... But he had this great enthusiasm and he had this great desire and this great commitment. And that appealed to us." With the Hendrick effort seemingly stalled, Keselowski went back to Penske with a request -- to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series. In addition to its Sprint Cup effort, Team Penske was fielding one full-time XFINITY Series team with driver Justin Allgaier . Expanding that program to two teams running all the races was problematic, given the economy at the time. Told such a scenario was unlikely, Keselowski was left to consider his few available options. But Penske officials continued to work until enough of the appropriate pieces were in place. "Sure enough, Roger called me one night and said 'Alright, I've got it put together,' " Keselowski said. "It kind of caught me off guard. I was sold. That's it; he made it happen." "I couldn't sit around and wait. ... Roger had gone above and beyond to put something together that I felt like was the opportunity I needed. ... The economy was on its way down fast; Roger (through his various businesses) had a lot of immunities to the economy. Rick made it very clear to me that he was not going to invest himself without having a sponsor, and the economy was not in a spot where he could facilitate that." Hendrick had been aware of the Penske interest from the beginning, having had conversations with his fellow team owner about Keselowski's status. "Roger called me and asked me could he talk to him," Hendrick said. "I didn't want to stand in his way. Brad's a hell of a talent. It was a timing issue. "It's worked out for him. At his age it would have been nice if we could have kept him. ... If I got a call from Roger and I was in his spot I would have done exactly what he did." POSTSCRIPT On Sept. 1, 2009, Team Penske officials announced that the organization had signed Keselowski to compete full-time in both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series beginning the following season. Since then, Keselowski has won 17 Sprint Cup races, 28 XFINITY Series races and championships in both series. "I don't want to sound mercenary but he brought us our first Sprint Cup championship (in 2012)," Czarnecki said. "Because that vision that he outlined, we tried to work with him and bring people along, bring people into the organization, have him work with people like (crew chief) Paul Wolfe, it was really the realization of that vision. That's what it (has) meant. "And his intensity hasn't changed." Former teammates Busch and Hornish have departed, and fellow driver AJ Allmendinger has come and gone. Keselowski, now 32, is the veteran of a Penske group that now includes 25-year-old teammate Joey Logano . "I wasn’t looking to switch," Keselowski said. "If things would have gone the way they were supposed to go before Mark won that race at Phoenix, I would still be there."
Hendrick employees receive Gordon commemorative rings
Photos courtesy of Jeff Gordon 's Twitter account, @JeffGordonWeb RELATED: Photos of Gordon through the years Christmas arrived in April at Hendrick Motorsports on Tuesday, and it was worth the wait. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon was on hand with team owner Rick Hendrick to distribute some pretty slick hardware. Celebrating Gordon's career in style, Hendrick and the NASCAR on FOX broadcaster gave out more than 600 rings commemorating the driver of the No. 24's legendary career. Gordon tweeted about the special gathering. Handing out career commemorating rings to everyone @TeamHendrick . Thankful to be part of this organization. #TeamJG pic.twitter.com/VkFJG3UhiX — Jeff Gordon (@JeffGordonWeb) April 26, 2016
At Martinsville, Hendrick embraces memories while motivating
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Rick Hendrick probably knew the answer. That didn't keep the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team owner from asking the question. Standing inside the No. 48 hauler, shoulder to shoulder with team members, Hendrick glanced at driver Jimmie Johnson . "I'd like to have another clock," he said matter-of-factly. "Jimmie, how many clocks do you have?" "Not enough," came Johnson's rapid reply. "That's the right answer," chimed in crew chief Chad Knaus. Officially, Johnson has eight career victories at Martinsville Speedway , where the race winner receives a grandfather clock for his or her efforts. Driver introductions were less than an hour away, and Sunday's STP 500 would not start for another 90 minutes or so. Hendrick , 66, was making the first of several stops on a sunny but cool Sunday morning at Martinsville -- which is the site of both some of his greatest highs in racing and his most devastating heartbreak in life. His Hendrick Motorsports organization fields four teams in NASCAR's premier series. The No. 48 of Johnson, the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne , the No. 24 of Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Chase Elliott , and the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr ., the series' most popular driver. On race days, Hendrick visits them all. After chatting with Johnson's group Sunday, Hendrick ducked into the No. 88 hauler, then the 5 and finally the 24. That the HMS transporters are parked next to one another helps expedite the process. Later, he speaks again briefly with the drivers and others out on the starting grid before the beginning of the race. "I start at the back of the grid and work my way to the front speaking to the drivers," Hendrick said of his own personal weekly grid walk. "It makes it hard sometimes when you've got one in the back, one in the front, one's going to the bathroom, things like that. It's tight between the time they get out of the truck (after driver introductions) and they start the race." That's the case at Martinsville, with Johnson starting uncharacteristically deep (24th) in the 40-car field, and Kahne pitting at the front thanks to a No. 2 qualifying effort. Slowing the process to a crawl are the fans and fellow competitors with whom Hendrick stops to chat as he makes his way from the frontstretch to the Turn 2 side of the series' smallest venue. The founder of a hugely successful NASCAR operation and automotive sales group, Hendrick remains an incredibly humble person. Fans that stop the team owner seeking an autograph get an autograph; those who ask for a photo get their picture taken with the team owner. The only request, coming again and again from those who help ferry their boss from one location to the next is a simple: "Give him room to walk, please." After stopping to offer Johnson and Earnhardt, who rolled off 21st, encouragement, Hendrick stops to speak with owner/driver Tony Stewart on pit road. Stewart remains sidelined after a back injury in a non-racing incident before the start of the season. His Stewart-Haas Racing organization purchases engines and much technical information from HMS, though that will change next season when SHR moves to Ford. SHR driver Kevin Harvick speaks briefly with Hendrick as well, then crew chief Rodney Childers. A few yards farther and it's Felix Sabates, minority owner of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, who steps around the cars on the grid to greet Hendrick . The team owner is still two teams shy of completing his task by the time the national anthem has ended and the planes in the flyover have flown over, colored smoke trailing from each. Elliott and Kahne are already behind the wheel, but Hendrick manages to lean in and speak to each before the window nets go up on their respective cars and the command is given to start engines. Hendrick will often visit each of the four teams' pit boxes, joining the crew chiefs, car chiefs and engineers for varying periods of time throughout the race. When the green flag finally falls, he's poised atop the No. 24 box of Elliott, standing in the background and watching the action unfold. Team owner Rick Hendrick , center, speaks to all of his drivers before a race -- Dale Earnhardt Jr . (left) is one of four. WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT "I just tell them good luck," Hendrick says of the pre-race conversations with his drivers. He offers words of encouragement to those who might be struggling, as well those who aren't. Staying out of trouble, making good adjustments and driving smart can pay off, he tells each one. Do that "and then you're going to be there," he says. "We've won a lot of races that way." Johnson, who has driven exclusively for Hendrick at the Sprint Cup level, calls his boss "a great motivator." "He can say a lot in a few words," the six-time champion said. "Here it would be, 'You know I won my first race here.' And just smile at you. "Yes sir. Message delivered. Let's go win another." RELATED: Top moments from Martinsville Of course, conversations can sometimes take a delightfully unexpected turn. "I can think back to my rookie year at Charlotte for qualifying," Johnson said. "There was some cool car I wanted to buy. He knew that I had ordered it through his dealership; I was going to lease it, and he stuck his head in (the window) just as I was getting ready to roll off for qualifying, and said 'You know how much I love to win the pole at home,' and I said 'I'm sure you do.' "He goes 'You won't have to worry about paying for that car if you win the pole.' " Johnson indeed wound up winning the pole for the 2002 Coca-Cola 600 . It was his first pole at a non-restrictor plate track. It wasn't until he was headed home, he said, that he remembered the owner's comments. "I was like 'Damn! I got a car out of this!' " Johnson said. "So I call him and go 'Hey what about that car?' and he goes 'No problem. A deal's a deal.' " There have been similar deals, some that paid off and some that didn't. But the primary message on Sunday for each team was straightforward and simple. "I'm here to support you," Hendrick said. "Give them that moral support and acknowledge how hard they work. "It's easy to be positive when you're winning every week, but when you're not, to come back with the right attitude to work together, figure it out and not point blame. We're a team. Drivers are going to make mistakes, crew chiefs are going to make a bad call, and pit stops are going to be bad. Nobody's perfect. Just keeping them all motivated. That's it." THE TRIP THAT NEARLY WASN'T Winning at Martinsville is special for Hendrick . At only .526 miles, it is the smallest venue on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. From an emotional standpoint, it might well be the biggest for him. As a kid, Hendrick traveled with his father, Joe, from their home in South Hill, Virginia, to watch the races. The younger Hendrick got Richard Petty's autograph "in Turn 4 down there," he said. "I don't remember how old I was. "I used to pull for Rex White here in the convertible (division)." Martinsville eventually became the launching pad for Hendrick Motorsports , known as All-Star Racing in 1984 when a former Modified driver from Chemung, New York, named Geoff Bodine put the team in Victory Lane for the very first time. "Had we not won this race in 1984, I wouldn't be here today," the car owner said. "That's how close it was. We had made the decision to close the shop until we got a sponsor. You know, usually when you do that, you never come back. "But Harry (Hyde, crew chief) talked me into coming up here and Bodine won the race. The rest is history. We owe the track a lot." There have been 22 more wins at Martinsville for the organization since Bodine’s victory. Most were celebrated. Jimmie Johnson' s win in the Subway 500 on October 24, 2004 was not. It was Johnson's first short-track victory. It was the day Hendrick , feeling under the weather, chose to stay home. And it was the day a company plane carrying 10 passengers, including son, Ricky, and brother, John Hendrick , president of the company, crashed while attempting to land at Blue Ridge Airport in nearby Stuart, Virginia. There were no survivors. Saturday, the day before this year’s STP 500 , was Ricky Hendrick's birthday. He would have been 36. "It was kind of one of those days where -- I really thought about this morning just not coming," said Hendrick , adding that returning to the spring race each year is difficult but that "it's really hard to come back in the fall. "Once I'm here with the guys, that's what those guys would have wanted me to do," he said. "When you come back and fly in you think about that." He returned for the spring race in 2005, and the reception from fans, officials and other competitors "just blew me away," Hendrick said. Skipping the fall race, he learned that "sometimes it's harder not to be here than to be here. "As tough as it is, at home it's worse. You're watching it or maybe you don't want to watch it. It's hard to explain," he said. "But I think I've learned that it's going to be tough because it was so much of a loss that day. But being here is easier than being at home thinking about it." 'LET'S GO TO TEXAS' A constant, cool breeze eventually pushed Hendrick inside one of his team's haulers for the completion of Sunday's race. It had been a trying day, and while a glimmer of hope remained in the closing laps, it turned out to be a rare un- Hendrick -like day in the series' first of two annual stops at Martinsville. Johnson finished ninth, Earnhardt Jr. 14th, Elliott 20th and Kahne 22nd. "When you have days like this, I do more trying to console them than anything else," Hendrick said, removing the radio headset that had kept him in contact with each of his four teams throughout the day. "I always just try to tell them, 'Let's go to Texas.' " The teams will gather Tuesday to go over what worked and what didn't, filing it away for later in the year when the series returns. But the focus will be on the upcoming race this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway . "We've been good on the mile-and-a-half stuff," he said. "They'll just have to decipher where they think they were off here." The man whose teams have won 11 premier series titles and 242 races -- including nearly two dozen here -- headed back outside into the fading light and growing shadows. "This is," he admitted, "a humbling sport." MORE: Key takeaways from Martinsville
Hendrick Motorsports’ Martinsville story, a tale of two tracks
There is a team and a track sharing an emotional bond in southern Virginia. Go inside the story of triumph and tragedy that surrounds Hendrick Motorsports and Martinsville Speedway.
Rick Hendrick wants all four teams to taste success
RELATED: Gordon keeps pedal down on way to Homestead Hendrick Motorsports , winner of six of the last nine NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, fields four teams but only one will be going for the 2015 championship later this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway . It's a fact that team owner Rick Hendrick doesn't like to be reminded of, given his organization's run of success in the series. Three Hendrick drivers qualified for this year's 16-team Chase for the Sprint Cup field -- Jeff Gordon , a four-time champ; Jimmie Johnson , winner of six titles; and Dale Earnhardt Jr . Earnhardt is still chasing his first Sprint Cup crown. Teammate Kasey Kahne was the only Hendrick driver who failed to earn a berth in the 10-race playoff. Gordon qualified for the Championship Round at Homestead thanks to a win last weekend at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway. Johnson failed to advance past the first round, while Earnhardt was eliminated after the second three-race segment. With only Gordon still title eligible, how does the organization balance what's best for the No. 24 team while not ignoring the needs of its other teams in the remaining three races? "The cool thing about our deal," Hendrick told NASCAR.com, "is all the stuff is the same. We don't play favorites over any of them. We give them the best stuff we've got -- all four of them. "So it won't be any different the next few races." While Gordon's efforts are top of mind, it's just as valuable for his other teams to continue to succeed as the season winds down, Hendrick said. It's just as important for Jimmie, Kasey and Dale," Hendrick said. "Dale's won twice, Jimmie's won four times this year, so it would be nice if Kasey could get a win. He's been running really well here lately, running up in the top five and top 10. "For all of those teams to end the year on a high is important because that momentum rolls you into next year. You go into the off-season kind of feeling like 'Man, I can't wait to go to Daytona.' "So yeah, it's important for all of them to run good."
Rick Hendrick shows off prized guitars
Rick Hendrick ’s interests span far beyond his love of racing and Corvettes. Mr. "H" gives NASCAR Illustrated a behind the scenes look at his impressive collection of rare guitars.
Johnson: Hendrick will adjust to SHR loss
Stewart-Haas Racing 's blockbuster announcement of its impending move from Chevrolet to Ford in 2017 affects another NASCAR powerhouse -- Hendrick Motorsports . Six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is confident team owner Rick Hendrick will make the adjustment in the 10 months between Tuesday's announcement and SHR’s departure from the engine and chassis deal that has been in place since Tony Stewart partnered with Gene Haas in 2009. "It was certainly a shock," Johnson said on Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway . "We have contracts in place with Stewart-Haas Racing that Hendrick has to honor and will honor and honor with integrity the way we always do. We have a lot of employees whose jobs count on that and rely on that. "Nothing is different this year. Fortunately, we have a year to figure out if we service some other teams and provide engines and chassis or how we handle it. I know Rick's goal is to keep the staff where it is. That gets me excited, because, if we maintain the staff, I think we'll be able to develop much more cool stuff for our race cars."
Rick Hendrick : 'We've just fumbled the ball more than normal'
CONCORD, N.C. -- The days of penciling in a Hendrick Motorsports team as a championship contender aren't exactly over, but it would be inaccurate to describe the four-team organization as peaking with just one race remaining before the start of this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . A year ago, HMS had all four of its teams, with drivers Jimmie Johnson , Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne , ready for the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' 10-race playoff. Heading into this weekend's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m., NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR), only Johnson and Earnhardt have secured bids for the 16-team Chase. Gordon can make the field based on his position in the points standings (he needs to finish 17th or higher Saturday night) or with a victory, while Kahne mathematically can get in on points but more likely needs a win to get in. RELATED: Updated standings The Chase officially gets underway Sept. 20 at Chicagoland Speedway . While many organizations would be content with such a scenario, team owner Rick Hendrick knows that’s not what's expected from his group -- which has won 11 series titles. Hendrick engines and chassis have also been on the entries of eight of the last nine championship-winning teams (including those won by Stewart-Haas Racing 's Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart ). The bar rests high for his organization, Hendrick said Tuesday at the HMS campus. "People catch up; people work hard," he said. "Rule package, rule changes, usually we're on top of it and we come out in front. "To think that you can be in this sport every single year and be the dominant guy that wins them all, that isn't going to happen. NASCAR isn't going to let that happen." Johnson won four of this year's first 13 races, equaling his win total from a year ago, while Earnhardt Jr. has a pair of victories this season. Earnhardt Jr. has five top-10 finishes since his win in the July Daytona race; Johnson and Gordon have three while Kahne has none. Combined, the four have led just seven laps in the past eight races, a statistic that doesn't please the team owner. "It's just part of it," Hendrick said. "I'm a big fan of (Winston) Churchill … I don’t like it when we're behind, but it motivates me. We've just got to work hard, work smart and we'll be back. "We get in position in Darlington where we have three in the top six or seven and we run out of tires and that's our fault. … Maybe we just didn't use the right strategy, who knows? There's been a lot of that this year. We've just fumbled the ball more than normal." Earnhardt Jr., who finished eighth, was the only HMS driver to finish in the top 10 at Darlington Raceway this past weekend. Kahne finished 12th, Gordon 15th and Johnson 19th. RELATED: Results from Southern 500 HMS personnel aren't blind to the situation. "We know as a company … we see the obvious," Earnhardt Jr. said during Tuesday's edition of the "Dale Jr. Download" podcast heard on Dirty Mo Radio. "We see we've got to improve and get more speed. We as a whole group sense that." Knowing the strength and past success of the organization tempers concerns with the Chase on the horizon. "I'm real confident that our company's going to be able to find what they want and what they're looking for," Earnhardt Jr. said. "They always have." While his group may not be competing at the level expected, Hendrick isn't ready to toss in the towel. He admits the organization, as a whole, is "off a little bit." "Maybe we're the same and everybody else is better," he said. "We've had a lot of success and these people want it and they want it bad. They have a lot of pride and they don’t like to be beaten. So does Joe Gibbs (Racing), so does (Team) Penske, so does everybody out there. "The question is how do you get back?" JGR and Penske teams have been the teams to beat of late, with JGR drivers winning seven of the past 10 races and Penske teams scoring two wins in that stretch. "We've been (there) before when we weren't looked at as the best team out there, the best record or whatever," Hendrick said. "But it isn't over yet. So you go ahead and count us out."
The history of Hendrick Motorsports and full crews for Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Hendrick : Martinsville is 'storybook' finish
Jeff Gordon earned a berth in the Championship Round of this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup , and according to team owner Rick Hendrick , it couldn't have come at a better time or taken place at a better track. Gordon, 44 and closing out one of the most impressive careers in the history of NASCAR, scored his 93rd career victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway , automatically earning a chance to race for a fifth, and final, title three weeks from now at Homestead-Miami Speedway . "I won my first race (as an owner) there," with driver Geoff Bodine, Hendrick told NASCAR.com on Tuesday. It was a victory that "kept us alive," he said. This most recent win "puts Jeff in the Chase in his final year. … He's been such a big asset to our company and to me personally as a friend. It's pretty darn special." Hendrick said there were several things that made Sunday's victory in the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 more meaningful than most. Which is pretty strong when one considers that Hendrick teams have won 238 points races, including the Daytona 500 , Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600 . Legendary races at legendary facilities. "We were so close last year with Jeff," Hendrick said. "We go to Texas leading the points (and) he gets taken out. We go to Phoenix, he runs second. He goes to Homestead and leads the better part of that race and you think what could have been. Because the race was actually over in Texas and they threw that damn caution. That was kind of bitter. "You start this year and we didn't run as good this year as we did a year ago. Then you go to Martinsville, a place that's been so good to us, the 22 or so wins, and it's been a place where we've had tragedy. … "To see him on his 'farewell tour,' his last race, go to Homestead and be one of four cars that have a shot to win the championship, I think that's a storybook (finish) all in itself, no matter how he ends up. That's a great deal. It's going to be special for a lot of his fans and the sport itself. I just think Martinsville was a super, unbelievable win. It's got to go in there, probably ranks as one of the most important and special wins in our career." Gordon won championships for Hendrick in 1995, '97-98 and '01. He has not won a title since the Chase format was adopted in 2004, but has finished as high as second (2007). As of now, he's the only driver guaranteed to be racing for the championship. Stops at Texas, up this weekend, and Phoenix in two weeks, will trim the eight-driver field down to its final four. "I think by winning early for Jeff, he won't be as nervous at Phoenix and he won't be as nervous at Texas and there will be a whole lot of guys around you racing awfully nervous," Hendrick said, "… a mistake's going to cost them. "There are a lot of good guys and it's going to be really interesting to see who the final four are going to be, when you've got some guys at the bottom that are on the outside looking in. Somebody's going to be disappointed in the next two weeks." Gordon has driven for no other team owner in the Sprint Cup Series since making his debut with HMS at the end of the 1992 season. Hendrick has seen the driver thoroughly dominate the competition – he won 47 races in a five-year span between '95 and '99 – and he's seen him struggle, going winless in '08 and '10. Although Sunday's victory was Gordon's first of the season, Hendrick says he knows the No. 24 team has the talent and ability to win the title. "Just knowing Jeff Gordon and how he can step it up when it's time," he said. "He's not going to go back there and turn over people to run 15th or 11th. "You haven't seen him in a situation where it's all the marbles for a championship. Usually you work all year long and it's every single week. Now it's a one-race championship really, that's what it's come down to. At a place where he won the race the year before last, led a lot of laps last year. Different rules, but he likes the track, just like Martinsville." Hendrick would like nothing better than to see his driver go out on top, a fitting end to an amazing career. The stakes won't be any higher but the owner says he has no trouble keeping things in perspective. "It ain't life-threatening, that's what I always say," Hendrick said. "I've learned if you let it eat you alive, you never get better. When we lose, it motivates us to go back and work harder. "We're just going to do the best we can; we'll go down there with the best stuff we have and try to beat the rest of them. "We made it this far; we made it to the final round and right now we're the only ones that can say that."