Friday, May 27, 2011

One-on-one with Rick Hendrick

   I recently spent some time with Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick discussing a story about the uncanny parallels between the careers of Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. You can see that story here.

   We also covered some other topics, not directly related to that story, including Hendrick's thoughts on when Gordon may retire.

   What makes Jimmie Johnson a special driver?
   Hendrick: “You’ve seen some phenomenal moves and such and he’s just smart and can drive a car out of control. Carl Edwards beats himself a lot of the time when he gets pissed off. Kyle Busch beats himself a lot of times when he gets angry. You can lose control in the race car. You have to learn to deal with it. Jeff (Gordon) tried to carry it on his shoulders a lot, too - he drove the cars and we would just take one of Jeff’s cars and put Jimmie’s seat in it. I will say Chad (Knaus) has a butt load of intensity. He eats, sleeps and breaths racing. If you took the kid who drives the 6 car (David Ragan) and you put him with Chad and you put his crew chief with Jimmie -- which one would run better? Would they run better together - yes. Can Kyle Busch get in almost any car? I think you have to have the talent. I think talent -- there’s a whole lot of guys with talent. Car control -- there’s a whole lot of guys with car control. There are not a whole lot of them that are as smooth as Jimmie is when it comes to performing in the clutch.”

   Do you think Jimmie Johnson would want to win a championship with a crew chief other than Chad Knaus?
   Hendrick: “I don’t think Jimmie -- I think Jimmie is more focused. Jimmie may one day in his career, but not right now because they know that they know each other. They know how to pull each other’s trigger and they know what they like and dislike about each other. They’ve been together and the team has been together a long time. I’ve told them before that the toughest part you guys are faced with is how you can stay united when you don’t win. You’re not going to win them all and you can’t win them all -- there’s bad luck or somebody’s outsmarted you or whatever. You can’t win them all and how you handle not being the top dog is the deal.  They know how each other thinks and Chad knows how to adjust the car, Jimmie knows how to drive it."

    Can you believe it has been 10 years since Jeff Gordon has won a championship? 
   Hendrick: “I know two or three times that he was right there. He’s been so close. You have to think that for the last five years Jimmie has just been damn unbeatable. Four of the five anyway.  Jeff still has the fire, he’s got the talent and I think he and Alan, when we get to the Chase - he’ll be there. I think he’s going to win some more races and I think there are still championships left in Jeff. I think this car has been a bug-a-boo to him. He had a mindset that he didn’t like it. He’s got a fire in his belly.”

   What do you think will determine when Jeff Gordon is ready to retire?
   Hendrick: “I think he still really enjoys the racing. I think Jeff still loves the competition and I think when he feels like he’s not competitive, he’ll quit. I know him that well. He’s so competitive that he will quit. As long as he feels like he’s got a shot and he can run up front then he’s going to do it. I think drivers know when it’s time and he won’t be one of those guys that runs around.”

   Are you worried about Jeff Gordon retiring anytime soon?
   Hendrick: “No.  It’s kind of funny, every time we re-up a sponsor I go to him and say, ‘Jeff, I need a commitment for two more years beyond next year.’ That’s the way I hook  him up. I need at least two more after this. I keep throwing the carrot out there and I keep telling him that he has to commit to do this. We have a good relationship and I respect him a ton and his talent and the kind of person he is. He’s special.”