NASCAR Media Conference
March 25, 2009
THE MODERATOR: Welcome to today's NASCAR teleconference in advance of this week's race at Martinsville Speedway. This is the first half of a teleconference doubleheader. Right now we are pleased to have a very special guest, Hendrick Motorsports owner, Rick Hendrick, whose organization got its very first NASCAR Sprint Cup win 25 years ago at the Martinsville spring race with Jeff Bodine as the driver back then.
Rick's drivers have won eight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, and the organization has won a total of 175 Sprint Cup races.
Rick, looking back, what's your memories of that first victory back in '84? And at the time, was there ever any thought about how things would transpire and how you could end up this successful as an owner?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, I wish I could tell you that -- I actually was not at that race. I had promised my wife that I would go to a church service with her and I did that that Sunday, and I didn't know until we got out of church late that afternoon that we had won the race.
You know, I found that out on the phone talking to my mom, but I can tell you this: A couple weeks before, we were going to have to shut the team down because we had no sponsor. You know, I told Harry, we absolutely were going to quit two races before that. And we went on and won Martinsville and went on and picked up enough help to make it through the year.
So if we had not won that race 25 years ago, Motorsports probably would not be here today. It means a lot. It means a lot because it was Martinsville, and it's close to home, and off of Car Lake. So it's got a lot of memories and in some ways, it feels like it was yesterday, and then you look back at all of the drivers and the people that have been involved, and it feels like it was a long time ago.
Q. Could you describe, in 25 years, the duty and the responsibility that the drivers that you had way, way back when you started, compared to what a driver what a does today?
RICK HENDRICK: I don't think the drivers were -- well, I know they were not as busy back then. Very few sponsor appearances, or maybe there were some but I didn't know, back then. The drivers back in those days, I don't think they had as much to do off the track. I think they raced and they made some appearances, but nothing like what the guys go through today with all of the commitments that they have to make with the sponsors that are involved in the sport and all of the travel.
So I think the guys back then had a little bit easier time. Didn't run as many races. Didn't have as many sponsors and didn't have near the commitments they do today.
Q. And as far as drivers' skills, could you compare the drivers today to the historic drivers, going back four or five decades ago, the drivers that started off this great sport?
RICK HENDRICK: I got to watch guys like Pearson and Petty and Yarborough and those guys, but since I was racing, my first two guys were Tim Richmond and Jeff Bodine, and I don't think there's anybody that had any more talent than Jeff Bodine out on short tracks and Tim Richmond on mile-and-a-half tracks. So with every generation, there is always a bunch of talent and unless you can get Pearson to race Dale Earnhardt, Senior, or Jeff Gordon, you would never really know. But I think there's just been great talent along the way.
I've been very fortunate to have some good ones and I've been amazed at what some of them can do with cars, and nothing takes the place of a driver's talent, I can tell you that.
Q. My question is about Dale, Junior. Last weekend at Bristol, he came out and said he's kind of tired of all of the criticism that Tony, Junior, gets. He says he knows there are high expectations on him and he knows he's not getting it done but put some of the blame on Junior and not Tony, Junior. Are you satisfied with their relationship, and is Tony, Junior still the best man for that job? And two, do you agree that Dale, Junior is not having sort of the start of the season that's expected of him?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, that's a good question, and I'm kind of glad you asked it.
We have been looking at that team, as we do every team, trying to make sure that we are doing everything that we can and we have the right chemistry, the right people and are performing to our potential. We had a sitdown back in Texas, and as I do with all of the teams, and talked about ways and things we can do better. And I will tell you, Dale Earnhardt was here today from 9:30 to 12:00 with Ken House and Doug Dukehart and Tommy, Junior, and Brian Whitsell, and the commitment from the guys on that team is there. And I kind of want to draw a parallel between, let's just take the 24 team last year, and where they were, and everybody was saying, hey, you need to replace Stevie or you need to do something, because they are just not running.
Last year at this time, the 88 was the best team we had on the complex, and they were the ones that were leading the charge. And then we kind of fell off toward about the Chase. Things were just -- they didn't seem to work.
And I can tell you that we have looked at everything. Dale, Junior is working out. He has changed his eating habits. We have got all of the folks that hopefully and supposedly know what to do here focused on that team, and I think the good news is, we are all trying, and I think that I'm not sure we will see the results tomorrow. But we have put all the effort we have against it, and right now, Tony, Junior is our guy.
I couldn't change anything. It's not -- again, we are not in left field. The car I think was the fastest in one of the practices. He slipped in qualifying. I think there is a lot of pressure on him because of who he is and there's a lot of pressure on me because of him being here, and that's all going to make us work harder.
What I want to say is that I am 100% behind this group. I have no intentions of making any changes. I have all intentions of making it better. And these guys are working their butts off no different than Stevie and Jeff did, and I've got to believe in the next few weeks, we are going to see some real success out of that crowd, and it's just one of those things that, you know, you can shuffle the deck and start all over, but when you see little things, a little tenth here, a tenth there, with the people in the team, with the preparation, with the plan getting to the racetrack, we are just putting a lot of effort against it, and I think it's going to pay us some huge dividends.
Q. When you came into the sport, did you get a lot of questions about here is a car dealer coming in without a lot of stock car experience and trying to invade this group?
RICK HENDRICK: No one paid any attention to me when I came in. Harry wanted an opportunity. He told me if he could build a car, he could win a race and I was naïve enough to believe him. I got to Daytona and looked out there with Junior Johnson and the Wood brothers and all of those guys, and I thought, man, what am I doing here?
I was just very fortunate to have -- starting out with five people and renting rear ends and transmissions from Harry Hyde and putting Chrysler stuff in a Chevrolet. You know, Harry working for $500 a week, and having the talent that Bodine had that wanted the opportunity so bad, you just could not do that today. You could not find a guy with Harry Hyde's talent sitting on the sidelines. You wouldn't find a guy like Jeff Bodine sitting there eager to drive a car, and you could probably not find a guy as dumb as I am to try to do it with no money.
We had a plan with Richard Petty and Kasey Spurlock and this all-star racing deal but no sponsors came together. Richard at the last minute backed off. To be honest with you, we were very fortunate to be here, because we were running out of money and I couldn't afford to do it.
But nobody felt like they wouldn't make it through the year, and after we won the first race and went on to win a couple of more; we won three that year and some poles and finished pretty decent in the points. All of a sudden, that's when people started looking at us, about the second or third year.
Q. I wanted to ask you a follow-up on Dale Junior. During the original announcement with you and Dale Junior, you made mention of the fact that there was going to be a lot of pressure on and you on your organization for making that change. Has what has transpired over the last couple of years been what you expected, more than what you expected or did you really not know what to expect?
RICK HENDRICK: I think it's more of really not knowing what to expect. I think I was extremely pleased with the way they ran out of the box. And I've enjoyed working with both of the guys. I feel like I've sheltered as much of the blame for the lack of success. When you say lack of success, we were running second and third in the points and won a race and could have won several races.
This year has been a slow start, but look at Mark Martin; a guy that I wanted to have an opportunity to come win a championship, and then we have some mechanical problems that normally we don't have that's put them behind.
This is a tough sport, and I look at guys like, you know, you've always got to beat at Bristol, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, they are always there at the end and they were struggling. Nobody is immune from kind of having some problems.
I think what I am confident with is the amount of effort that's going into this deal right now, that we are going to get better. And I'm very happy with the relationship with Dale and Tony. But I went through the first time in a long time with Jeff Gordon not winning a race last year.
It's almost like going to the fair, and you have these gophers that you hit one on the head and the other one pops up; it's hard to get them all going at the same time. So it just seems like you've always got one that there's a little something going on with.
But my philosophy is, if you can tweak it and keep inching it forward before you've got to just cut it apart to try to completely rebuild it.
I see a lot of effort from everybody on the team, and that's what it takes to make it work. There's just no way that these guys are going to sit in a meeting for three hours today and not come out of here with a plan that's going to make them better.
You know -- I go back to this. We win the Busch Clash or the shootout. We win the 150. We were stout in the first races. We could have won Richmond and so forth last year. I mean, we ran so good out of the box, it kind of spoils you that it's going to be that way every week. But even with Jimmie Johnson who is three in a row, there is going to be peaks and valleys and you've just got to work through them.
Q. Just taking it one step further, at what point will you -- I know you've expressed your confidence. But at what point but step in; what would it take for to you step in and have another milk-and-cookies kind of speech?
RICK HENDRICK: We already had it. We've already had it.
Q. From the outside looking in, Martinsville would seem to represent so many things to you, both good and bad. How do you sum up what that track represents to you? What are the images that go through your mind when you hear Martinsville or when you are there at the track?
RICK HENDRICK: It's a really tough deal for me. It a track that I remember going to watch a convertibles race in '63 and Rex White was a guy -- I was a big Rex White fan. I got his autograph through the fence there. It was right down there the street from, where I went to South Boston every Saturday night with my family. Martinsville, always been a special place. I think we've won 17 races there. You can't fly down the East Coast on a clear day and not see Blue Mountain, and I can't go up there and land on a helicopter that I don't circle and look at the cross and think about all those folks, and during the race and after the race; it's always an emotional time if we win the race since then. It's just one of those bittersweet things that Martinsville track didn't do. It just -- that's where they were headed.
It's awful hard. It doesn't get any easier, and every time it comes up, I question whether I really even want to go. And then when I start thinking about it, it's tougher being at home than it is being there, too, because it's just then you know you should be there with them.
You know, but the track is so special to me. And it meant so much to my dad and my son and everybody else. I mean, we all wanted to win there, because that was home. We were from Virginia. You know, it was a piece of history. But I don't expect it to ever be any different as the years go by.
Q. On a different subject, driver development programs, a few years ago, teams could not hire enough 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids it seemed like. And now you certainly see some of the younger drivers in development programs not with rides right now, even in your situation with Lent (ph) and Castle. It almost seems like the type of young talent was flowing a lot, and now it seems like it's gone to a trickle. What are the challenges out there? And in this case as a generation, or at least a couple of years of young drivers, will they get lost in the shuffle of economics and the COT and everything else?
RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, that's a problem, and I'll tell you where it starts. When the economy was good and you had more sponsors than you could put on the cars, you could get some races for these young guys, and people were willing to sponsor them.
As the economy tightened up and people were watching their budgets and cutting their budgets, it's hard for any kind of sponsorship. Today it's tougher than it was for sure a couple of years ago. It's just really hard to convince someone that you want them to bring along a young guy, and you know there's going to be some tough times. You don't expect a young guy to get out there and run with Carl Edwards or Kyle or some of those guys or a Harvick that are running every race. It's awful hard for them to compete with those guys.
On one hand, they need to race against them to show their talent, but on the other side of it, if you're a sponsor, what are your chances of really winning and being on TV? So that has been the real problem.
And then the good news/bad news with the four-car rule, if you've got a young guy and you don't have a seat for him, then you are spending your money to train him for somebody else.
It's really -- I don't have the answer to it. If the economy I think was robust, I believe you would see a lot of them out there. But with the economy like it is, I think it's going to be harder and harder to convince someone to go with a young talent.
Q. Is the next Jeff Gordon type of driver, might he get lost in the shuffle, or is that type of talent always going to find a way even in this time?
RICK HENDRICK: You know, that's a great question, and I would be -- I don't know that. But I think that if the guy is just super, super talented, you watch him in a truck and you knew or you know; I look at Carl Edwards and I look at Biffle and I look at some of those guys that never drove Busch, you could just see in the Truck, they had talent. And, you know, Kurt Busch, they step into a situation. And Jeff Gordon winning the first Busch the first time he got in a Cup car.
I think the All-Stars will be seen, because they are not hard to spot. The guys that have to develop will be the ones that have the trouble.
Q. When did you have the milk-and-cookies talk and how did it come up?
RICK HENDRICK: We had it after Texas and everybody kind of spoke their heart, and we got some things off our chest. You know, we all went to work. At that point nobody got sensitive and nobody got their feelings hurt. They told me what, you know -- I asked the questions, what could we be doing different as an organization, and what was good and what was bad, and communication, and we had some problems in the team internally and we fixed them. And we started working.
You know, I think it's a character of a good team when you can sit down and you can say, you know, this is a problem. And I think you've got to rate them -- you've got to rate everything, from the pit crew to the setups to the prep of the car to the motors to all of the things that go on to make the team right.
And then you've got to look at areas where you are weak and go to work on them. But I can tell you what -- I can tell you this; both of these guys, both Junior and Tony have told me, that if they thought that they need to be split, that they understood. And that's my call, and I'm not ready to make that call, not even close. Matter of fact, I feel better about it since we have been working through it with our guys.
I'm convinced that they are better together. I'm convinced that with Ken House and Doug and Whitsell and working with our other crew chiefs and drivers, Mark Martin has brought a ton of professionalism and energy to our camp. I just feel so bad for him because he's contributed so much, and we have let him down. I feel like I have let him down.
And I just think we have got the right combination. And I think we are going to be able to prove that to you folks here pretty soon.
Q. In Atlanta, he was kind of -- Dale was kind of saying that he didn't understood -- he said, "I'm watching my teammates and they are running so well, and we should be able to run so well. We should be able to run that well." Do you have any kind of take on why that might have been happening?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, his teammates were saying that about him at Atlanta last year, because he was running up front. And it's a frustrating thing, but the thing is, what works for Jimmie Johnson, doesn't necessarily work for Dale Earnhardt. And because Jimmie and Jeff were totally opposite in set ups and directions they went in in the last few races, and Jeff has come out running really, really well and Jimmie has been good, too; but you know, you've got to tune the car to the driver and just because you ran good last year, you see guys that dominated at tracks a year ago show up this year and they are 15th or 12th or tenth, and there's a new sheriff in town. There's two or three other guys that are running awful strong.
Sometimes having teammates run good can get you screwed up, because you can go over and try to put exactly what they have got on the car, and that's not you. And we found that with Jeff. We have got to tune the car to Jeff and Jeff's got to understand how the car is working.
The information exchanged between the guys now as to how they feel and what they have to overcome is really good. But I think pressure, frustration; you go overkill, you take too big of a swing at it, you try to take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and then you've got something that just doesn't work at all. And everybody in the garage area fights that. I've seen it time and time and time again.
But again, when Dale Earnhardt shows up here on -- what's today, Tuesday or Wednesday? Wednesday. Sorry. When he shows up here at nine o'clock and he's with the engineers and with Tony and Ken and they are going through set ups and looking at what they are going to run in Martinsville; he's all over it and he's working out so when we get to the summer, he's going to be in better shape. Jeff is working out harder than he's ever worked out since I've known him in the 14 years.
And these guys are feeding off of each other, and I may be -- I'm just convinced that we have the formula here with the support of Ken and his leadership, and Brian is going to be with them, and Tony is experienced and knows Dale. Dale is I think focused, or maybe even more focused than I've seen him since he's been here.
And I give him a tremendous amount of credit, because you don't -- you know, you can tell a young kid, hey, you need to work out, you need to eat better, you need to do this, you need to do that. But Dale's taking every suggestion to heart and we are going to get our best stuff out there.
And that's what our plan is. We are going to all attack this thing, and same deal with Mark. We had two motors that were broken, and those are the kind of things do you do after you're been bit a couple of times that you think you've got away with it for years, but now all of a sudden -- and it's total dedication for this organization that we don't want to let any of our people down. And we are all -- at the end of the day, if we say we did the best we can, then we are satisfied.
But I have got to say this, and I am repeating myself, you don't get anybody with a better attitude than Mark Martin. And Dale has step up to the plate, and I am super proud of him, and Tony is willing to do whatever he needs to do, and that's all you can ask of them. If they are open-minded and they want to try, we can get it fixed.
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