Hendrick looks to race back to the front

They are the New England Patriots of stock-car racing — and their tires are always properly inflated.

They are the New York Yankees of yore in a sport where “Yankee” used to be a dirty word around certain pulled-pork-scented infields. They are the lords of the left-hand turn, supremely proud of their checkered-flag past while looking to continue the beatings until further notice.

The team of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne — really, any driver that the most casual customer of the sports page has heard of — was not a factor at the close of the championship chase last season. That was almost beyond imagining, just as it is unthinkable that Hendrick Motorsports won’t shape the profile of racing in 2015.

Honestly, what the folks at Hendrick have wrought these last 20 years strains even the definition of dynasty. No one in any sport has exercised more dominance in this young century.

Joe Gibbs has won an equal number of Super Bowls as a coach and Cup championships as a car owner (three) and can speak with more authority than most on the topic of sustained victory. “In any pro sport,” he said, “it’s hard to stay up there. Sometimes you can hit it and fall away, but to stay up there consistently is the key.”

Rick Hendrick and his empire refuse to fall away, and Gibbs finds himself just one among the well-heeled, well-oiled owner class chasing him around in circles.

Only at Hendrick can a season which featured 13 race victories among its four cover-boy drivers be considered a disappointment. For none of the four stacked them at the right time to claim the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, and that is an indigestible crumb in the Hendrick craw. After all, the team won six of the previous eight Cup championships (11 overall since 1995).

“That just makes us hungrier,” the 65-year-old Hendrick declared.

Still, such is the reach of Hendrick that he played a fundamental role for the ’14 championship team, Stewart-Haas Racing. It bought its motors and chassis from, you guessed it, Hendrick.

Hendrick is so good and so confident in his team’s talent that he even supplies the very tools of his own defeat. Try to imagine Bill Belichick bartering his game plan to the Dolphins. Such an arrangement might stir some questions about the competitive nature and balance in his sport. And certainly there is room to question whether the immense shadow Hendrick casts over multiple garages is good or bad for racing. That is the same question asked of every dynasty.

Indisputable, though, are the results. Only one race team in history has won more NASCAR Cup races than Hendrick (231). That would be Richard Petty Motorsports, whose namesake has 200 of the team’s 268 victories.

Hendrick’s mastery is really no big mystery, Petty surmises.

“Money,” quoth The King.

“You have to figure that Hendrick was a racer to begin with (the son of a NASCAR driver, he drove in four Cup events before making his millions dealing cars) and became a smart businessman able to collect the money to be able to pursue his hobby,” Petty said. “He doesn’t do it for a living, he does it because he loves to do it. Of course, he wants to make a little money out of it, too.

“He’s got a passion for it, and if they need new stuff, he doesn’t mind going in and making it all, either.”

Hendrick has the drivers. He has the support crews. He has a shop that is 430,000 square feet of Terminator-grade technology. Here is the man who has it all, racing-wise.

And to think, when Hendrick began in NASCAR in 1984, with Geoff Bodine in the seat of a one-car operation, “I don’t think anybody in the history of the sport started out as cheap as I did,” he said. “I was renting the building, the tools, almost everything. The only thing I owned was the skeleton of the car and the motor.”

That changed in a hurry. Hendrick wasn’t the first to go to multicar teams, but he was the first to really master the concept — expanding to two cars by 1986 and to four a year later.

His growth was only partially mechanical. Someone had to woo and keep the sponsors that in turn kept all those teams financially lubricated. And someone had to identify and keep the best young driving talent while surrounding them with the best support, from tire-changer to crew chief to engineer. Hendrick had the eye, and as a result raised two of the top drivers of this generation — Gordon and Johnson. And such drivers tend to draw the best behind-the-scenes talent.

“I think (Hendrick’s secret) is in the way he treats his employees,” Gene Haas, of Stewart-Haas, said. “Back in the ’80s he found someone who built good chassis and he said, ‘Why don’t you come work for me; I’ll give you what you want.’ The same thing with the motors. What Rick has done really well is provide individuals with a lot of talent the resources to build things.”

It sounds almost too simple, but such is the common mortar that holds together this dynasty.

No, Hendrick didn’t win the Cup championship last year. But his motor did. And with the alliance between his team and Stewart-Haas, he enjoys an even deeper pool of cars from which to draw the information in this high-tech pursuit. Think of it: Hendrick has some manner of access now to close to one-fifth of every field.

“You look at the eight-car dynamic, and you’re going, man, that’s what we need,” said an envious competing driver, Kyle Busch.

OK, for one year Kevin Harvick did more with Hendrick stuff than any of Hendrick’s drivers did. As far as that becoming a pattern — don’t count on it.

The owner has pushed through a lot worse than a few poor showings at the end of the 2014 Chase: Diagnosed with leukemia in 1996. Served a year of home confinement after pleading guilty to mail fraud in 1997 (he was pardoned by Bill Clinton in 2000). Lost 10 family members and friends in a 2004 small plane crash, including his son and brother. He and his team have trademarked resilience.

“They found a way to sustain it each and every year, which is so hard to do in our sport,” said Denny Hamlin, a Gibbs driver who finished third in last season’s point race. “If you’re looking at an organization as far as results are concerned, you always look at Hendrick’s results as the pinnacle and the standard.”

The outlook for the Hendrick’s All-Stars this season is filled with all the typical sunshine and cotton candy, although there are questions about how quickly Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne will mesh with new crew chiefs.

At the top of Hendrick ticket, Gordon declared this his final season of full-time racing, and has been just as definitive in stating he’s not interested in simply riding out his career at the rear. And Hendrick hardly is shinnying out on a narrow limb when he predicts that a six-time champion such as Johnson is “going to have a really, really great year.”

Overall, Hendrick assessed: “I think we’re going to be in really good shape. I think the overall chemistry among the engineers and all in our group is probably the best it has ever been.”

In other words, business as usual. “You still got to have a lead dog for everybody to run at, and right now as far as top to bottom, they’re it,” Petty, the lead dog from another era, said.