Saturday, November 28, 2009

2009 in Review: The Hendrick Mystique

My apologies for being AWOL the second half of the season, but my life seems to be divided into two sections: pre-baby and post-baby. Training and running my first marathon July-November didnt help either.

Reflecting upon the season, a tip of the hat to TMC for bravely, and correctly, predicting an unprecedented 4th Cup for the 48 team. Perhaps he should play the lottery, as the odds against it were incredible, which is why I couldnt pick them.

My year-in-review post will be basically devoted to the incredible dynasty which is Hendrick Motorsports. Besides the 4th straight Cup, drivers finished 1 2 3 in points. This dynasty makes other modern-day sports dynasties pale in comparison: the 70's Steelers, the 80's 49ers, the 90's Cowboys, the 00's Patriots, the 80's Celtics and Lakers etc.

Since Dale Earnhardt won his last Cup in 1994, 15 seasons ago, HMS has won an incredible 9 Cups. 9 out of 15 during a period of increasing competitiveness. This includes streaks of 4 in a row from 1995-1998 and 2006-2009.

What makes for this Hendrick Mystique? I think I have finally figured it out, thanks to a little 1 hour inside look on Speed about a month ago. On Mondays, all 4 teams sit down with open notebooks and share everything. Not only do they have some of the smartest people in racing working there, they basically have 4 crew chiefs, 4 car chiefs etc on each car. Thats part A.

Part B is what happens at the track. Chemistry cant be over-rated but generally speaking these guys are calm, professional, and methodical in their approach to race day and during the race. Workmanlike, communication, almost surgical precision in everything they do, an absence of emotion, a focus.

Perhaps contrasts to other teams can better illustrate the point. At RCR they are still playing roundrobin with crew chiefs. Ditto Roush. Roush is the ultimate crew chief, calling too many shots, contra Rick Hendrick. Penske's guys dont even like each other let alone work together. JGR is closer, but there are some king-sized egos over there, too much "I" in "team."

The obvious exception at HMS, bearing more resemblance to the preceding paragraph than to his teammates, is the 88 team. In his 2nd unsuccessful season at HMS, at Talladega in November Jr dog-cussed his spotter and crew again at the end, calling them lazy &%$#@'s. He hasnt forgotten how to drive, and he has the best equipment in the series. What he lacks is that sense of teamwork that makes HMS what it is.

My personal opinion is he is not a very good communicator about his car ("this car sucks" is not adequate), and the only guy that could keep him on any kind of leash was Tony Jr, who is too old-school for today's technological Cup series. For 4 HMS teams to be competitive, somebody needs to get to Dale Jr and force him to grow up in his interpersonal relationship skills. That "someone" is Rick Hendrick himself.

A few years ago, he sat Jimmie and Chad down, served them milk and cookies, since they were behaving like children, and everyone got it all out in the open. Something similar needs to happen with Dale Jr. A fatherly chat. A dutch uncle. Whatever you call it, when Jr signed with HMS, he claimed Rick was like a father to him. It's time for Rick to act like Dale Sr would have for a talented driver who is way too big for his britches.

Incredible season for the 48, into the history books. And in my humble opinion, JJ nudges out JG by a nose on the all-time greatest driver list, by virtue of the 4 in a row. If youre interested, my list is:
1. (tie) Petty / Earnhardt
3. Pearson
4. Johnson
5. Gordon

Like TMC, I found my interest waning this season. But once the calendar changes to 2010 and teams head to Daytona for what's becoming SpeedMonth, I'll be back in the saddle.

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