LOUDON, N.H. — With his four cars making up one-third of this year’s 12-man field for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, car owner Rick Hendrick says he remains driven by one guiding principle that he has consistently preached to his staff, crew chiefs, and drivers:
According to Hendrick, it is the hallmark of a race team with a glittering record of 10 NASCAR championships and 200 victories, and he doesn’t expect his four-car stable to deviate one iota from the mantra of “Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to produce uncommon results.’’
It is a mission statement that greets visitors to the foyer of the 60,000-square-foot race shop that houses Jimmie Johnson’s and Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race teams on Hendrick Motorsports’s sprawling 100-acre campus in Concord, N.C.
So if and when the competition for the Sprint Cup intensifies among his four drivers — Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, and Earnhardt — over the last nine races of the Chase, including Sunday’s Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Hendricks expects no disruption in the teamwork, communication, and flow of information.
If anyone were to stray off course, Hendrick said, “You’d destroy what got you to the dance.’’
“The way the four teams have worked together, and the communication we’ve had prior to each race weekend throughout the year has been really good for myself,’’ said Kahne, who recorded two victories in his first year at Hendrick, including July’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at NHMS.
“I’ve really liked it and felt like I made gains because of that,’’ said Kahne, who, along with Gordon, made the Chase by clinching one of two wild-card berths. “I would say it’s going to be the exact same in the Chase.
“With all of us, with the same goal of winning the Sprint Cup, I think Hendrick Motorsports has a great shot of winning one with one of its drivers.’’
When he joined Hendrick this year, Kahne became a sponge during the team’s debriefing sessions with crew chiefs and engineers.
“I’ve felt as close to my teammates and learned as much from my teammates as any other year, by far,’’ Kahne said. “The one thing I looked forward to more than anything was being able to work with Jimmie and work with Jeff and listen to Dale and see what they’ve had to say about their cars and certain adjustments.
“When we’ve been on the racetrack, I don’t feel like I’ve raced them or they’ve raced me any different than we have before. The way things are going right now, it’s really good and I don’t see why it would change. It’s a really good deal.’’
But, as some other drivers have wondered, will Hendrick drivers continue to play nice with each other once they start clashing on the track?
“Really, you look at Hendrick,’’ said Denny Hamlin, who entered the Chase as the top seed after winning a series-high four regular-season races. “No one’s going to give up anything because they’re all fighting for the same goal.’’
At Hendrick, the four crew chiefs meet on Tuesdays before a race to share information. At the track, drivers and crew chiefs meet after each practice to go over their data acquisition.
“I’ve never ever not answered a question that was asked of me by a teammate,’’ Johnson said. “Clearly, all the data and every adjustment we make to the car is in the database for any driver or crew chief or engineer to see. So it’s not that things are hidden, but you’re not going to sit down and say, ‘Hey, man, you wouldn’t believe it. I moved over 6 inches [on the race line], found this little piece of grip and, man, it made a huge difference.’
“I don’t think you’re going to be sharing that info, but the detailed aspect of the car, that never changes. It’s always going to be [an open book].’’
Putting teamwork into practice may be infinitely more difficult on the track, where drivers not only have to battle Chase drivers, but the other 31 non-eligible drivers, some of whom have teammates in the Chase.
“It doesn’t matter if [a teammate] is in the Chase or out of the Chase or whatever else,’’ said Clint Bowyer, one of two Chase-eligible Toyota drivers from Michael Waltrip Racing’s three-car stable. “It matters if they’re a good teammate, willing to work together, and if they’re good enough to push you to be better in the same equipment.
“More importantly is that we’re all working together, and I mean not just the drivers amongst ourselves, but the crew chiefs, our engineers — that’s what makes a difference. It doesn’t make a difference if they’re in the Chase or not if they’re willing to work together to move forward.’’
Michael Waltrip Racing and Roush Fenway Racing each have two of their three drivers in the Chase, while the three-car operations at Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, and Penske Racing have one driver in the Chase.
Three-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart is the only Chase contender from Stewart-Haas Racing’s two-car stable.
Chasers with one or two teammates not eligible for the championship have a bit of an advantage in that they can rely upon them for much-needed data acquisition at a track.
“The team that we don’t have in the Chase is really strong as well and can help us do a lot of things,’’ said Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota and Bowyer’s MWR teammate. “We can try some new stuff and kind of be on a little different wavelength than we are and we can still get information from them.
“I think we’re in a good position — we’ve got a good mix there of information.’’
But teamwork in the heat of battle can be fleeting. Drafting support will come into play only at one Chase event: the carburetor-restricted race at Talladega’s 2.66-mile superspeedway.
“If it’s late in the season and, for whatever reason, Jimmie’s getting ready to win the points and if I have a chance to push him or Kevin Harvick, I’m probably going to choose Jimmie Johnson,’’ Kahne said. “But we’re not racing at Talladega at the end of the year.
“It’s an individual call, for sure,’’ Kahne said. “But you’re doing what’s best for yourself at that point. That doesn’t happen very often. There’s some tracks where it will on some restarts. But if you catch that group in front of you, you want to push the car that’s going to go by the other car and get to that point. It would be the way I’d race, which is the same way I’ve raced all season.’’
No one is certain, though, how teamwork will be affected at Hendrick Motorsports once the Chase heats up.
“We’re going to continue to work together, share information, going through this Chase,’’ said Gordon. “The downside is we’re going to battle one another for wins and for the championship before this thing is over.
“When that happens, you can’t help the competitive nature of things coming out, and that information-sharing stream is going to get challenged.’’
Said Hendrick, “If something happens this year, and they start withholding stuff, I’ll be surprised and disappointed.’’
Would he be inclined to step in and address it?
“Yeah, I will,’’ Hendrick said. “Or it will destroy what got us here. But I’m not worried about it.
“I’d say, if you ask me what my hardest job is, outside of getting sponsors in a tough economy, it is making sure that you do everything you can to promote teamwork and [keep] everybody working together.’’