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Team owner Rick Hendrick's domination: Is that good for the sport?

  Car owner Rick Hendrick (C) has another superstar, Kasey Kahne, ready to plug into Mark Martin's ride for 2012. The rich getting richer? Too powerful? Rivals are wondering (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)   

    By Mike Mulhern

    Rivals can only look at car owner Rick Hendrick's growing power in NASCAR and shake their heads....and dream.
    Life for them is only becoming more frustrating -- Hendrick has just added Kasey Kahne to his already star-studded roster, giving him and his satellite engineering operations seven of stock car racing's top name drivers. And an eighth driver is eventually expected to join too, some here predict.
    Hendrick, and not just because of Jimmie Johnson's four straight Sprint Cup championships, is the top team owner in NASCAR....and the gap between him and the rest of the stock car world is growing wider.
    Is that good for the sport? Is that dominance and that depth good for the sport?
    No one questions Hendrick's own talents in amassing such a powerhouse.
    But is it good for the sport?
    When rival team owner Jack Roush put five Cup teams in the championship playoffs in 2005, NASCAR boss Brian France quickly reacted by limiting the number of teams under one corporate roof, to four.  And France even hinted then about a cut to three.
   Now, however, team owners have figured a way around that limit by 'affiliating' with more teams, sharing technology and equipment.

   Richard Childress, who has had to cut back from a four-car team to three this season, after losing a major sponsor, can only bite his tongue, when asked about Hendrick's dominance: "He's just got a great stable of drivers, and a good bunch of people."
   Does Hendrick have too much dominance? "That's up to NASCAR to control, not me," Childress said.
   Is NASCAR worried about the seeming lack of balance? That's hard to judge.
   NASCAR's Robin Pemberton says the Hendrick domination is all by the book: "Jimmie is a great talent...and it shouldn't be overlooked that they have done a good job of keeping all their core group together. That probably helps them to be as successful as they are.
   "They've got the best athletes, they do the best job, and they win their events."
   However around the garage Friday there appeared to be an increasing sense of frustration with Hendrick's growing strength. Whether that might translate in to anger is uncertain.
   Ty Norris, who helped the late Dale Earnhardt create DEI and knows well the power inside such clout, says, with a laugh, "Remember the Bruce Springsteen song: 'The poor man wants to be rich, the rich man wants to be king, and the king's not satisfied until he rules everything.'
   "Well, King Hendrick the Great lives. He's starting to build quite the monopoly of premier talent.
   "Not that others can't be successful....and we will be successful...but he's definitely positioning himself in his own league.
   "And that makes it tough."
   Norris, now general manager for Michael Waltrip's own four-team operation, says "We'd hoped that the (NASCAR mandated) team limit rule (four) would limit that...but now with Stewart-Haas (the Hendrick engineering satellite), they (Hendrick) can extend that to another two more.
    "But you can't be mad, you can only be jealous. He has built quite the empire.
   "It just makes you work harder."
    Still, Norris says wearily power seems to beget more power: "The days of other teams feeling they can go and try to buy the sport's top free agents appear to be waning, because all the top ones appear to end up in one place: the Tony Stewarts, the Ryan Newmans, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Danica Patrick.....
   "It just puts a premier on trying to build your own rock star through your own system...."
    Would the late Bill France Jr. have allowed one man to amass such a powerhouse roster, or would he have stepped in to try to maintain some balance of power?
   Norris says he remembers when NASCAR wasn't enthusiastic about the prospect of Earnhardt joining team owner Junior Johnson in the early 1980s when Johnson was building an empire with Darrell Waltrip and Neil Bonnett and Budweiser.
   "But it's a free enterprise world, and Rick has earned what he's got," Norris said. "And when you earn your position, people come to you.
   "In the heyday of the Earnhardt era, I used to answer a lot of inquiries about sponsorships...and we could pick and chose who to engage with. Rick is in the same situation now: he gets the call more often than he makes the call.
   "But the economics are still hard for them. It costs them an awful lot of money to be successful. So I'd say cost-wise they're probably still cash-challenged.
   "You want to be frustrated....but he (Hendrick) wasn't always getting the best free agents. He has built an organization that can attract them now."
   Robby Gordon, one of the very few independent owner-drivers still on the tour, is struggling. Just hanging in the key top-35 is difficult. So Gordon says "the only way I can compete against Hendrick is to the other things I do.
    "Like this Monster Truck program, our (off-road) desert program, our Dakar program. We have to do different things."
    However Gordon's Indianapolis 500 plans, "are on terminal hold," while sponsor Monster debates the value, "to see if it fits their demographic."
    That's not a plus, because Gordon has Indy-winning potential.
   So this is frustrating, Gordon says: "The Hendrick guys are the class of the field here. So he can hire the best drivers out there...so he can get the best sponsors too.
    "If Kasey goes to Stewart-Haas, well you can call that a Stewart-Haas deal, but they buy cars, engines, engineering, everything from Hendrick. That's different than we are, because we build our own stuff."
    Is it time for NASCAR to step in to rebalance the balance of power in this sport?
   Gordon: "Jack Roush has eight teams (counting the four Gillett teams), and Hendrick has seven next year with Kasey, and I'm sure he'll wind up with eight.
    "That's 16 cars right there. So if we can just run in the top-16 we're doing pretty good.
   "And that's not even consider the Gibbs guys, and Red Bull, and Chip Ganassi....
   "Now hats off to Rick. He's been doing this longer than most. And he's not doing anything wrong.
    "The Hendrick guys have everyone beat in craftsmanship, quality and attention to detail. Other teams have good drivers and good crew chiefs, but their equipment isn't as good as Hendrick's.
    "They're the top dogs right now....and we can only dream....."

    Kyle Petty, now TV commentator, says "In a lot of ways you can compare Rick Hendrick's operation to the New York Yankees organization – they both just keep adding A-level players.
   "They never make a move by taking a B-level player and try to make them an A-level player. Consider Gibbs, in contrast: they're taking Joey Logano and trying to make him an A-level player. And Richard Childress took Clint Bowyer, when he wasn't an A-level player, and has worked to make him one.
   "All those other teams still use the old model: 'Let's discover a guy and make him good.'
    "By the way, going back six or seven years to all those 'development' drivers; where are those guys now?
   "Rick lets someone else develop them, and then he takes them. That's not a knock on Rick either.
   "The players Rick gets are already established.
    "Jack Roush, for example, is still struggling with David Ragan, whose not yet an A-level player.
   "You can't fault Rick. The rules allow it.
   "And until someone else gets into position to combat him, that's the way it's going to be: There's the Hendrick bunch, and then there's everybody else. The Roush guys all but fell off the face of the earth, for example....and look at Childress and
    "There's A-level, which is Hendrick; and then there's everybody else."
    Would Bill France Jr. have allowed it?
   "It's not that Billy would allow it or not allow it, but he would try to be making rule changes to level the playing field. He would give the Hendrick guys a four-inch spoiler and everybody else a 10-inch spoiler.  He was not afraid to step in and do something.
   "But there's so much money in this sport now that I'm not even sure if he were here he could fix some of it."
    Over the past several years the 'little guys,' once the heartbeat of this sport, have been left hanging out to dry.
    Example: Robby Gordon's 14th place run at Phoenix last weekend was almost like winning, considering the 13 men ahead of him at the finish were all driving for 'mega-teams.' "Hey," Petty says, "Robby Gordon won the race at Phoenix. You look at the finishing order and it's 'Mega-team,' 'Mega-team,' Mega-team,' and 'Oh, there's Robby Gordon 14th, so he 'won' the race.
    "Robby's got to be pleased with that."

    Jay Frye runs Team Red Bull, a fairly new two-car operation, which finally put a team in the playoffs last season: "Rick is replacing one superstar with another superstar," Jay Frye says. "Baseball players want to play for the Yankees, basketball players want to play for the Lakers, and this is no different.
   "This will give Kasey an opportunity to showcase what he can do...and it will eliminate any excuses. We'll see what he's got."
    That can be a double-edged sword, of course, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. has found.
    "Just adding another team to add a team, if it's not the right team with the right driver, doesn't necessarily mean success," Frye points out.
    "Adding a team can offer economics of scale, yes.
     "But how much more powerful can those Hendrick guys get? Can they win two championships this season? There's only one trophy."


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"That's up to NASCAR to

"That's up to NASCAR to control, not me," Childress said.
This is absolutely wrong. NASCAR provides the playing field. I guess we can argue whether the rules are the same for everyone, but, on paper at least, the playing field is level. It's not up to NASCAR to "control" the dominance of the teams. It's up to the teams (like Childress) to compete for dominance. Hendrick figured out long before anyone else that marketing drives this sport. He fostered strong relationships with sponsors. A key part of this strategy was to bring in top-notch controversy-free drivers that sponsors love. That's why he gave up developing young, talent, arrogant drivers with attitudes like Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. By locking up quality sponsors, Hendrick used that money to get the best people: drivers, crew chiefs, engineers, etc. to keep those sponsors happy. Hendrick fairly competed and won. NASCAR has no business "controlling" them now.
BTW: It's interesting how, in his litany of dominant teams, Robby Gordon didn't mention Childress, even though Childress has three teams in the top seven points positions.

excellent point about

excellent point about hendrick and marketing....and nobody argues that he's not head and shoulders above the rest in seeing the bigger picture.

but that goes straight to economics -- how much of winning is the car and its high-dollar technology and how much is just the driver? shouldnt this all be more about the drivers?
and is it politically incorrect to point out the sense that since Randy Dorton's death the synergies in the GM camp haven't been quite as strong. randy was great at keeping the chevy engine camp on even keel....and i sensed that spilled over to the other side too.
and i, for one, dont really like all these plain vanilla drivers -- yes, sponsors may love their blandness....but I'm a Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond kind of guy -- give me color and feistness and hard-driving.....and then figure out how to market it.
this sport should be more in-your-face.

I absolutely agree with you

I absolutely agree with you on the color and feistiness of the drivers but, it shouldn't be all about the drivers. Even back in the days of Turner, Johnson, Allison, Yarborough, Earnhardt and Richmond, it was about the cars and the teams too. Dodge, Ford and Chevy (also Buick, Pontiac, Mercury etc.) competed to put the best car on the track. People like Smokey Yunick (talk about colorful and feisty!) competed to make the cars even better.
Maybe this if off-topic, but I think the real problem with racing (NASCAR and open-wheel) started when we started saying that the cars were too fast. Back when Rick Mears and Bill Elliot were breaking speed records, the "race" was about building the fastest car that can finish the race. Period. Now it's about rules and templates and parity. Parity is fine for franchised sports, but it has nothing to do with racing. Parity is there to make sure all the sponsors get enough TV time.

"Rick has earned what he's

"Rick has earned what he's got." Don't say that, anyone, because it's not true.
What it illustrates is that NASCAR still has its head in the dirt. The four-car limit was a terrible compromise; NASCAR seems unwilling to let go of the "independent contractor" myth as far as competition goes, yet the sport won't truly start growing again until they do. Not only must the car-ownership limit be reduced to three cars, it needs to be enforced - and they can enforce it all they want through the entry blank - to where there are no satellite teams, no engine lease deals - the sooner they break the engine monopolies that the sport presently has (off the top of my head I can only think of four organizations - Hendrick, Roush, JGR, RCR - that build their own engines) the sooner the sport can start to grow again.

There must also be a hard spending cap imposed on raceteams - again, they can enforce it through the entry blank; if you're caught cheating on the cap your cars don't race. The sport's insane economics are a result of what the head of KMart back in 2002 called "the bottomless pit of spending." So start reigning in the spending sport-wide.

I've never seen any credible attempt at an argument against either rule; I asked Jim Hunter about it back in 2006 and he didn't seem convinced of his own answer beyond the independent contractor approach.

The argument about free enterprise ignores that gaming the system violates the free enterprise spirit, and this is what Hendrick (and also Roush) has done. And NASCAR gave them an easy out with the absurd testing limit rules of the 1990s; testing limits wound up killing ability of single-car teams to develop and strengthen with a focused effort, the advantage they had over inherently top-heavy and divided multicar outfits.

The argument about "if it's not the right combination" has some merit, but it would have more merit if there was a case of a driver jumping to a small team and suddenly winning race after race without the resource and technology edge enjoyed by Hendrick.

Salary caps are the way of life in pro sports outside of baseball (and people wonder why so few teams are competitive there) because they work; it is long past time for salary caps to come to racing.

the RH run shows one big

the RH run shows one big point -- under the current system/rules/testing, if a team gets ahead of another team, it's almost impossible to catch up.
i agree the four-team limit was rather hokey. Aimed straight at Jack Roush (and don't get me started again on NASCAR and roush and all those little championship run issues...).
and i certainly agree that we need more independent engine builders in this sport. that used to be the heart of it all. the way it is now, it's all in the hands of the manufacturers....
that spending cap, well, it makes sense, and it could be done. but there would be a lot of ways around it.
i agree the economics of this sport are insane....but part of that is the barrier to new entries that current owners like. consider the newcomers lately and how they've fared....
testing: i agree, open up charlotte every day of the week all year long. and richmond too.

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