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When it comes to NASCAR's Big Picture, Rick Hendrick wields a big paintbrush

  Rick Hendrick (L) had a ragged 2010....only one of his four drivers won a race. But then Jimmie Johnson did bring Hendrick that historic fifth-straight NASCAR championship. Time for Jeff Gordon (R) to start winning championships again? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Tim Richmond....
   Talk about NASCAR legends, and shooting stars burning so brightly and then dying so suddenly.
   It's the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt's death – but it's also the 25th anniversary of Richmond's debut with then-new team owner Rick Hendrick.
   Richmond only had a few years in racing, but they were magnificent.

   The late David Poole captured the drama in his book 'Tim Richmond, the fast life and remarkable times of NASCAR's top gun,' who died in 1989, at just 34.
   That 'top gun' reference was a tip of the hat to the 1990 Tom Cruise film 'Days of Thunder,' based on Richmond's glory days with Harry Hyde.
   'Days of Thunder' – another piece of the Rick Hendrick legacy.
  Richmond, in his number 25, was so good a driver that Earnhardt, then in his prime, relished their times together on the track. That 1986 season was one of the best in NASCAR history, Earnhardt versus Richmond and arch-rival Geoff Bodine, who was Richmond's teammate and whose feud with Earnhardt was stunning to watch.

   But this isn't about Tim Richmond, the wild child who was downright brilliant at the wheel, and uncontrollable outside the car.
   This is about Mr. H, Rick Hendrick, who has been playing this NASCAR game since 1984, and with cool aplomb, remarkable at times considering all the fireworks going on around him.
    Hendrick helped make Richmond a star, after letting him 'tutor' with fellow car owner Raymond Beadle, an equally wild and crazy guy whose own life story would be a hit in Hollywood....but that's another story.
    If only 1986 could have gone on forever....
    But Richmond got sick, controversy reigned, and suddenly he was gone.


     Remember these guys: Tim Richmond (front R) and ol' Harry Hyde (front L), and one of Rick Hendrick's first NASCAR teams (Photo: HendrickMotorsports)

    Hendrick, in this year of remembering Dale Earnhardt, says "Dale was the only guy I've ever seen who could wreck somebody, and then go put his arm around them and make them feel good about it.
   "It was an amazing talent."
   But it didn't always work like that. Hendrick himself was right in the middle of that Earnhardt-Bodine deal that finally required intervention by NASCAR boss Bill France Jr. And Hendrick was right in the middle of it too when Earnhardt wrecked Terry Labonte at Bristol going for the win: "I was ready to kill him that night myself," Hendrick said.
   "I remember when Bodine and Earnhardt were going at it one time – Bodine took Earnhardt into the corner one time and rubbed him pretty hard. And they got to the next corner and Dale planted Geoff about firewall-deep.
   "I walked over to my car, just destroyed, and told him 'You know, Geoff, if you see a snake, you better step on his head, and not just pick him up and shake him and lay him back down. He'll bite you. If you're going to mess with Earnhardt, you'd better wreck him good. Or we'll be cutting you out of the car.'
   "That whole deal cost me and Richard Childress a lot of money. So the meeting Bill France had with all us down in Daytona wound up saving me a lot of money...because I was losing a lot of cars."
    Earnhardt wore that black hat proudly.
    On the other hand, Jimmie Johnson, the sport's biggest winner today, wears the white hat.
    And no one seems to be able to fit a black hat anymore.
    Hendrick concedes no one walks the garage any more "with that swagger that Dale had, and that respect.
   "Dale had this magic about him. It was amazing."

   But now The Big E is gone....Tim Richmond is gone....Jeff Gordon is no longer 'Wonder Boy,' as the late Earnhardt so teased him.
   Kyle Busch was too wild for Hendrick's tastes, and was forced to move on.
   Geoff Bodine, semi-retired.
   Brian Vickers too moved on, rather than be just the fourth driver on the four-car team.
   Hendrick carries a lot of NASCAR history in his briefcase.
   Hendrick's history in this sport goes much, much deeper than those five championships with current star Jimmie Johnson.
   "Back then it was so much different....and I can remember going to Daytona when none of the media even wanted to talk to me," Hendrick recalled.
   "Now it's just such big business.
   "But I'm a racer; I'd race for nothing. A real racer would hock his house to keep racing. And I've raced when I spent a lot more than I should have.
   "But back then it was fun, and no pressure...other than the worry about going broke."
   Hendrick may not have to worry about going broke today. His NASCAR operation is 500-men strong, and he has tentacles everywhere.
   Just about everything he touches turns to gold.
   Hendrick picked Mark Martin out of virtual retirement a few years ago and they nearly won the 2009 NASCAR championship, in a highly unexpected five-win season.
   Of course Hendrick probably shouldn't have let Kyle Busch get away, or Brian Vickers. And signing Dale Earnhardt Jr., well, it might have been a great business deal but the headaches have yet to abate.

   And what to make of this sport as a whole? For two years now it's been in a slump. Crowds off, TV ratings down.
   Last season NASCAR let drivers take the gloves off, literally, and they sure went at it. Even Jeff Gordon getting into a boxing match with Jeff Burton. "If we had a raffle, those two would be the last ones I'd pick for something like that," Hendrick says. "But it just shows you how tough it is when you're back there racing for 25th, and even good friends are going at it like that."
   "But it's good for the sport," Hendrick quickly added with a grin.

    NASCAR, Hendrick says, may have lost its way lately.  "The economy has affected our sport a ton....and I think we had some miscues too – that the tracks, the owners, the drivers took some things for granted. And now we've had a reset.
   "We might have been a victim of our success.
   "But as the economy gets better, we'll see the stands get full."
   NASCAR's changing the championship points system might not be at the top of the list of things that need tweaking in this sport, and Hendrick says "I think what we had was good."
   Yes, Hendrick has won five straight titles, of course.
   But maybe shorter races, even a shorter season – remember when the tour was only 28 races? – might help spark things more.
   "I absolutely think the races ought to be shorter and the season ought to be shorter," Hendrick agrees. "It's just sooo long.
   "Football gets to take months off. Yet when we get from Vegas (the early December awards banquet, less than two weeks after the end of the season)  we're right back again testing.
   "We work harder in the off-season than we are in the regular season.
   "If we had three months off, fans would be more eager to watch more.
   "But which tracks are you going to eliminate. Everyone has such a huge investment.
   "I don't know how you unwind what you've done."

   On his own side of the big picture, Hendrick concedes that 2010 was an off-season for his whole operation.
   Johnson did rally to win last year's title, breathtaking, given he appeared beaten much of the season, only to pull it out in the final race.
   And Hendrick concedes that Dale Jr., who has won only once (and that a gas mileage race at Michigan) since moving to Hendrick's, is still a work in progress, as they head into their fourth year together.
   Still, in those days right after the end of the season the Hendrick bombshell was mind-boggling: One of the greatest NASCAR empires in history right here, and yet just hours after the season-ending Homestead race last fall Hendrick felt the need to shake things up quite dramatically for 2011.
   Hendrick's off-season shakeup was stunning – Jeff Gordon took his helmet over to the Alan Gustafson team that Martin has been driving for, and Earnhardt took his helmet over to the Steve Letarte team that Gordon has been driving for. The means Earnhardt and his new guys will be working side by side with Johnson and Chad Knaus – no excuses here. Martin himself is moving to the Lance McGrew team that Earnhardt had so little success with.
   It is all either the recipe for spectacular success or.....
   In analyzing the Hendrick operation – Johnson's long run of success, Gordon winless for nearly two years now, Earnhardt winless even longer, and Martin's unexpected 2010 slump -- there's an argument, when considering who's winning and who's not, that sheer driving talent doesn't mean as much today as it did, say, 10 years ago.
   Maybe even just five years ago.
   That technology, engineering, computers, engineers of every ilk, and NASCAR's ever-tighter rules box – which keeps forcing teams to use more technology, more engineering, more computers and more engineers – has taken much, too much perhaps, right out of the driver's hands.
   And maybe luck means so much more, considering how many drivers are racing for potentially-winning teams: For this Daytona 500, in example, as many as two dozen drivers could legitimately win.
   Maybe that helps explain why Gordon hasn't won since Texas in the spring of 2009.
   At 39, Gordon is not quite long in the tooth, but there are distinguished touches of gray in his sideburns, and this will be his 19th season on the tour.
   However his current dry spell is deceiving, because in 2009 Gordon finished second eight times -- which could have easily translated to a remarkable nine-win season.
   And the first half of 2010 Gordon had very good shots to win Las Vegas, Martinsville, Phoenix, Richmond, Daytona in July, and Chicago....only to hit something of a slump over the second half.
   Martin is still remarkably self-motivated, as is Gordon, and Hendrick calls Johnson "a machine." (Hendrick just shakes his head when recounting his star driver's latest challenge, a novel pre-24 Hours diet, coupled with an intense workout routine which has him running 12 miles in 90 minutes.)

   Which leaves us with Earnhardt, still the enigma. Earnhardt still a Hendrick project.
   Maybe it's just a driver's confidence level that makes more of a difference in this sport than we might imagine.
  Is Dale Earnhardt Jr. still the talent at the wheel that he once was? Can Hendrick make him a winner again?
   Hendrick says he's confident:
    "I've seen him come from the back twice....in plate races....and I've seen him lead 60 laps at Texas and then we have a terrible pit stop and he has to come all the way back up through there again.
   "You can't do that unless you've got an awesome amount of talent.
   "But confidence means so much, and getting him in the right position.
   "He's the same guy that was the best guy I had the first two-thirds of the year....until the wheels came off that first year.
   "When we hit it, it's going to be great. And I hope we can talk about it next year and you can ask 'How did you know it was going to work?'
   "I know it's there, I can feel it. Whatever it takes."
    And however long it takes.


   When you've got Mr. Five-Time on your team, skies are always blue (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Something I still don't get -

Something I still don't get - Tim Richmond wasn't too wild for Rick Hendrick, yet Kyle Busch was? Hendrick may be selling that story but I ain't buying it. Rick may not have liked Kyle Busch in the end, but Busch is a saint compared to Richmond, especially off the track.
That whole deal with booting Kyle and bringing in Junior was Hendrick getting his paws on what he thought was a good driver and a PR homerun, but was instead a NASCAR-created myth. When NASCAR starts giving Junior the bigger restrictor plates and the other overlooked tricks on the car again, then Hendrick might see him win another race. Maybe he'll bring back the Wrangler car again and the "magic" will return.

That's long bugged me about

That's long bugged me about how Hendrick dealt with Kyle Busch - with him the entire Hendrick fleet was running super, but after bringing in Junior the Hendrick fleet slipped other than Johnson.

Junior won because DEI found out how to use the transmission tunnel area as an aero tool; they exploited this 2001-4 but once everyone else figured it out then Junior didn't just fall back, he fell off the map.

And that Wrangler car in the Firecracker 250 - suddenly Junior is unpassable? That whole deal looked dishonest. And I've never for the life of me been able to figure out just why it is so important for the sport if Junior wins or for people to not let go of Senior's memory - Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Tim Richmond were better racers than Earnhardt and all died tragically, yet all are forgotten and Earnhardt, who wasn't as popular when he was alive as the modern mythology makes him out to be (one of the larger fan clubs in the sport was Fans Against Dale Earnhardt), gets documentaries made about him that refuse to make the audience feel uneasy about him as a racer and is already getting revisionist pieces written about him leading up to Daytona (such as in USA Today's NASCAR preview and the one from Sporting News).

The sport doesn't need anymore Earnhardt "magic."

We may disagree on a lot of

We may disagree on a lot of things racing-wise, but the last half of that paragraph pretty much describes my feelings verbatim about the Initiator and the memories of him. I certainly didn't want him to die, but I hated his style of racing and the fact that the media bent over backwards adoring him for driving that way. I don't miss him one bit. NASCAR let him get away with whatever he wanted to do, too. The one thing that irritated me more than anything about his death was his fans BLAMING Sterling Marlin for his death. Earnhardt cut Marlin off, making it three-wide when he should have never tried to go between Marlin and Schrader. How Earnhardt fans twisted that was beyond me.

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