Hendrick Motorsports has become the pinnacle of success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. With more championships than any other owner, 11, along with the most successful and popular drivers in the sport today, HMS is here to stay. However, it hasn’t always been that way, here’s a look back at the 30 year old team.
Rick Hendrick began his Sprint Cup team in 1984 as All-Star Racing, fielding the #5 of Geoffrey Bodine. Many people know of the story that year around Bodine’s win at Martinsville. Mr. H. Had been considering closing down the team after the season’s first 7 races due to financial concerns and lack of a win – even at the beginning Hendrick expected greatness. That first Martinsville race for the team led to a win, the team’s first, and was just the beginning of the connection between the team and track. Hendrick wasn’t at the track that day but the win convinced him that he was capable of being a winning team owner and changed the history of the sport.
Bodine went on to win 3 races that season and posted a top 10 points finish, very impressive for a new team. The next season Rick Hendrick changed his team to the famous Hendrick Motorsports.
Before Jeff Gordon
From 1985-1992, Hendrick searched for the driver that could bring him a championship at the highest level. Bodine wasn’t able get back in victory lane his second season with the team but improved to 5th in the points. The next season, Mr. Hendrick brought a big change to the team, expanding it to a two car team. Multi-car teams at that point were unsuccessful, but the concept was to use the teams to share data. The driver chosen for the second team, #25, was Tim Richmond.Richmond would win 7 races that season on top of Bodine’s 2, earning them a 3rd and 8th place respectively in points.
Unfortunately, we will never know how great Richmond could have been for Hendrick Motorsports. Richmond was diagnosed with AIDS and would only race 8 more races, all in 1987 – he won 2 of them. The replacement full time driver was Benny Parsons in the #35, but Parson’s couldn’t bring the success Richmond could and was replaced by Darrell Waltrip in 1988. Waltrip raced for Hendrick for 3 seasons, winning 8 races.
While Waltrip was racing for the team, Hendrick expanded to three teams, still searching for the righ combination, adding Ken Schrader. In 1988 and 1989, all three drivers finished in the top 10 in points, but were unable to claim a championship. Following the 1989 season, Bodine was replaced with Ricky Rudd, and Hendrick added a fourth part time team to his stable, having now expanded far beyond what any other team owner was willing to do. However the 3.5 team approach led to a disappointing season and the team was cut back to 2 for 1991, with Rudd and Schrader driving the #5 and #25, a sort of back to basics approach.
Rudd continued to drive for Hendrick for 2 more seasons, while Schrader stayed with the team through 1996, but the 1992 season brought the first star to Hendrick.
The final race of the 1992 season brought an unknown kid to Hendrick Motorsports who would change the way NASCAR approached young talent forever. Jeff Gordon hadn’t had too much success in the Busch (Nationwide) Series, but Mr. H thought he could drive, he just needed the right equipment.
Gordon would go on to dominate the 1990’s like no other young driver ever had. Winning double digit wins in 3 seasons and winning 3 championships in 4 years, Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham blew away the competition. Before Gordon everyone thought that drivers had to be veterans and established in other series before making the jump to Cup. The #24 Rainbow Warriors helped Jeff set multiple records for youngest to achieve something and gave Rick Hendrick the success he was looking for.
Since Evernham’s move to ownership, broadcasting, and now back to a competition role at Hendrick, Gordon hasn’t been as successful. However, he notched another championship, and continues to rank top 10 in points with trips to victory lane almost every season. Gordon’s 20+ year career has earned him a place in the Hall of Fame when the time comes.
Many put Gordon and Hendrick together in the 90’s, but Terry Labonte also had a successful run for the team. Lab0nte won the 1996 championship, interrupting Gordon’s run of 3 out of 4. Labonte only won 2 races that season compared to Gordon’s 10, but edged his teammate in a 1-2 finish for HMS in points.
Following the 4 straight owner titles, Hendrick only won 1 more over the next 8 seasons, having been unable to find the sidekick driver for Gordon, or the crew chief that could sustain success for the #24. After having cars driven by Ricky Crave, Jack Sprague – who won multiple title for Hendrick in truck – and Wally Dallenbach Jr., Hendrick brought in Jimmie Johnson.
Looking at Johnson’s run of 5 straight and 6 in 8 years, people assume that he would have been highly sought after. On the contrary, Hendrick was reluctant to sign the driver in 2001. Johnson was signed on a couple conditions, one was that Gordon would be majority owner of the team, as it was Gordon who believed JJ could succeed. The other was a sponsor condition. When signing on Lowe’s, the company wasn’t convinced in JJ’s ability, but they understood the opportunity with Gordon’s involvement. In the beginning, Lowe’s signed Johnson in order to get Gordon, the 3-time (soon to be 4-time) champ agreed to be in advertisements with his new driver, and to continue doing so if Johnson didn’t pan out.
Johnson proved to be a worthy investment.
Now being one of four drivers with 4+ championships, and needing one more to match the King and Dale Earnhardt, no one questions Johnson’s ability anymore.
For the last decade, many other drivers have driven for Hendrick; Jerry Nadaeu, Casey Mears, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Mark Martin, and Brad Keselowski have all made starts in Hendrick cars before their current stable of drivers.
Earnhardt & Kahne
In 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. shocked the NASCAR world by switching from his fathers team to drive for Rick Hendrick. The story behind it goes all the way back to when Earnhardt was a kid and signed a napkin for Hendrick. Earnhardt was too young for it to mean anything, but Hendrick always said he wanted Jr. to drive for him. Jr.’s time with Hendrick hasn’t been all success. After wining the first race with his new team, the Gatorade Qualifier for Daytona, Jr. and winning one race that season, Jr. has only won 2 points races for Hendrick.
Hendrick completed the driver stable he wanted in 2012 with the addition of Kasey Kahne. Kahne was signed to Hendrick before Hendrick had the room for him after NASCAR’s 4 car team limit was implemented. Mr. H promised to find Kahne a ride in 2011, after his contract was up, but before Martin’s Hendrick contract was up to allow him on their team, and did so with Red Bull.
The worst of times in the History of Hendrick Motorsports happened off the track the weekend of Martinsville 2004. While Martinsville is home to some of Hendrick’s greatest triumphs, the moment that sticks out is when a plane crashed, killing 10 people of the Hendrick team, including Risk’s son Ricky. The cause of crash was determined to be pilot error.
Johnson won that day’s race, but all post race victory celebrations were cancelled by NASCAR, who called the whole team together following the race. All Hendrick drivers drove with the “Always in our Hearts” Memorials on their hoods the following week.
#5 – Kasey Kahne – Kahne has had a couple up and down seasons for Hendrick. Usually he is capable of running up front, but has trouble finishing many races. His winning will guarantee a Chase birth, but I see him being knocked out in the second round.
#24 – Jeff Gordon – It’s unclear how Gordon will perform this season. He’s coming off a good run in the Chase after not winning in last year’s regular season, so the momentum could carry over. Problem is he did the same thing the year before and started off just as slow last year. I don’t see 16 drivers winning a race in the regular season, so Gordon is a lock for the Chase whether or not he can win. The tracks in the Chase are mostly good for Gordon and wins give advancement, I see Gordon being eliminated after the third round.
#48 – Jimmie Johnson – I don’t believe Johnson will will title #7 this year. It is most likely that he will be in the final four running for the Cup at Homestead, but he has never won at the track and I don’t think he will come out on top this year either.
#88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Somehow, with the new points system only caring about winning, the winless Dale Jr. would have won last year’s championship. I don’t think he’ll be so lucky this season with the system actually in place. I do see Jr. getting back in victory lane, but don’t see him making it to the final round in Homestead, getting as far as Gordon.