CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rick Hendrick believes in setting goals because chasing carrots has proved to be an effective motivator for NASCAR’s winningest team.
He spent decades chasing Petty Enterprises in his bid to win 269 Cup races and claim NASCAR’s crown from The King. Kyle Larson gave him that record-breaking win in the 2021 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a track just down the road from the sprawling 140-acre Hendrick Motorsports campus.
Hendrick moved the goalposts. He wanted 300 Cup Series wins. The engine shop wasn’t off the hook, either: Hendrick wanted win No. 500 for them.
His four-driver lineup needed 31 more wins to make the boss happy. It was William Byron, a Charlotte native who grew up rooting for Hendrick’s teams and first met Mr. H when he was 14, who picked up that milestone win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. He was three wins late: the engine shop picked up its 500th win when Larson won the Southern 500 at Darlington.
“As soon as we won 269, that was a moment to take a deep breath and enjoy it for two days, maybe a week,” Hendrick told The Associated Press. “Now you’ve passed Petty. So we immediately started thinking 300. And I’ll tell you, all the drivers wanted to win it. And as we got closer and closer, it just so happened that 500 wins for the engine shop was coming close, too. We had a shot to do them both at the same time.
“You always have to have a carrot, always have to have something you are striving for,” he added. “It brings the whole company together and everyone is counting down and preparing for it, and it motivates the whole company.”
Winning is what Hendrick Motorsports does best. Hendrick almost went broke during his 1984 launch and only Geoffrey Bodine’s win at Martinsville eight races into the season prevented Hendrick from pulling out, but the organization has unquestionably been the very best in NASCAR.
Hendrick has won Cup races with 20 different drivers – six are already Hall of Famers – and collected a record 14 Cup titles along the way.
Hendrick Motorsports has both Byron and Larson fighting for the championship over the next six weeks and Byron heads to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend as the only driver already locked into the round of eight of the playoffs. He has a series-best six wins – double any other driver – and Byron is NASCAR’s championship leader.
It's left Hendrick in a sentimental mood.
He gathered his drivers on the track at Texas for a celebratory photograph, and when everyone got back to campus in Concord, the front entrance was adorned with balloons and a banner to mark the 300th win. Chad Knaus, a Hall of Fame crew chief who led Jimmie Johnson to 83 wins and seven titles, organized an on-campus happy hour party.
Hendrick has spent this week reflecting on his first Daytona 500 win, the first championship, the 100th win, “any time you win at Indianapolis" and just about every monumental moment.
Jeff Gordon, who leads all Hendrick drivers with 93 victories and is now vice chairman of the organization, noted that Hendrick has taken time lately to reflect on his own Hall of Fame career. The team is looking forward to next year's 40th anniversary of Hendrick Motorsports.
“There's a lot on the plate right now that's bringing back a lot of history, which takes him all the way back. He's the only guy who has been here for all 300,” Gordon told AP.
Gordon said the Hendrick employees have started a poll to determine how many victories they've celebrated.
“We found one other person on campus that was here, they went to work like the day after Bodine won at Martinsville. So he's at 299,” Gordon said. “Now that we've started gathering more and talking about it more and celebrating, we say ‘What’s your number? When did you come to work here? What was your first win?' And it's really cool because it because it tells you when people came to work here and how quickly numbers added up.”
What's Gordon's number?
“I think I'm either (ranked) 31 or 32 as an employee, but my first Cup win was the 35th for Hendrick,” he boasted.
There's no letting up now as the organization eyes a potential 15th Cup title with either Byron or Larson. Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, who both missed races this year with injuries, did not qualify for the playoffs and Hendrick said his goal for those two drivers is to win before the end of the season to bring momentum into 2024.
Gordon believes HMS will end the season on top because since moving into his executive management role with the team, he's recognized what Hendrick's greatest strengths are as a leader and how he motivates an entire company.
“What I've learned that Rick does so well and why I think the organization is what it is, is that he focuses on recognizing abilities and talents,” Gordon said. "He loves to be a part of putting teams together, whether it's one or two people together, or a whole group, and then giving them the resources they need to succeed.
“He reads people in a room like I've never seen. It's that common sense-street smart-coming from a humbling beginning,” Gordon added. “I've seen it now more than I've ever seen it before. He can leave a meeting and he could just go around the table and tell you what everyone is contributing, or not contributing. He's just unbelievable at being able to get the very most out of everyone who works for him.”
As for those carrots, Hendrick noted that's easy: The next milestone win.
“Now somebody was saying 400, and I said ‘Well, how about 350? Maybe we can get to that one,’" he said. "You’ve got to keep that competitive spirit, you can’t rest on your laurels because this will eat you up. If you keep that carrot out there, the competitive juices, the guys don’t want to back up, they want to win.”
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