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The Dynasty NASCAR Built… Or Is It Hendrick?
Credit: CIA Editorial Photography

The Dynasty NASCAR Built… Or Is It Hendrick?

The word “dynasty” is frequently overused in sports – especially in an era where every achievement must be overhyped on Twitter, Facebook and every TV news source imaginable. So the Miami Heat, after two straight NBA titles found themselves on the verge of a “dynasty.” Your local baseball team wins nine games in a row and it’s a “dynasty in the making.” Heck, you win three rounds of neighborhood poker Friday night and suddenly, “Dynasty” gets written on your car in the parking lot.

Trophies come naturally for HMS, and this year it seems easier than ever

Trophies come naturally for HMS, and this year it seems easier than ever

But in NASCAR, the word is legit these days, a label earned through years of championship success. Hendrick Motorsports, winners of five races in a row this season are seeking their seventh Sprint Cup title in the last nine years of competition. The only two seasons they missed out? Tony Stewart, winning in 2011 while running a Hendrick-supported chassis (making it eight of the last nine, really) and a freak broken part, in 2012 at Homestead that handed former Hendrick protégé Brad Keselowski the trophy over Jimmie Johnson.

It’s Johnson at the forefront again this year as HMS looks poised to cash in again. Sunday’s Michigan triumph marked three of the last four, spent in Victory Lane as the No. 48 shined in Chevy’s backyard. It’s Johnson’s first ever victory at the track, a rare oval that’s snakebit him in a career with Lady Luck as his friend, not a foe. Up to second in points, he’s now part of a 1-2-3 juggernaut bookended by Jeff Gordon (up top) and two-time winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (down below). It’s the best the team has looked since 2009, a year that ended with their top three programs sitting a healthy 1-2-3 in the Chase.

For Johnson, who’s never had a consistent rival through the years, his best bet looks to be Kevin Harvick, second on Sunday, and shining in his new Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. But SHR, despite a four-car team of its own, is fully dependent on Hendrick for chassis and engines. That means even with a Harvick upset, HMS stays the master puppet over all who dare to seriously contend in the Chase. The chances for an “HMS-only” Final Four with Harvick, Earnhardt, Johnson and Gordon are better than ever these days.

For those who are fans of HMS, hey, that means you’re watching more than ever – and you should disregard the rest of this column. But for the others who’ve stopped watching, and/or paid less attention in recent weeks, that’s because you see a familiar name up front. The truth is, the real dynasties bring fans into the seats wanting more. Some just never catch on, like the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA, or UConn’s women’s basketball program. People get tired seeing the same old faces they don’t relate to and refocus on other forms of other entertainment. (Keep in mind, that’s what professional sports still is… a business designed to entertain people.) Even fans of the biggest one, like the UConn women, sometimes get bored of the way they do business. You can only see so many 30-point blowouts, with nothing special attached before you’re subconsciously skipping games. All of a sudden, you’re just assuming they’ll win and tuning in to see the big matchups only.

That’s left NASCAR’s popularity wave (or is it washout?), for better or worse tied to a team (Hendrick) and driver (Johnson) who haven’t been able to captivate America. No one’s sitting here faulting the way they do business; it’s just a cold reality. Popularity contests are based around the fact that no athlete is obsessed over equally. And the numbers? They favor indifference, NASCAR’s ratings tumbling from 2006-14 during Hendrick’s biggest reign of dominance yet.

Is the dynasty getting old?

Is the dynasty getting old?

For a time, this season, with the young Penske drivers shining (Keselowski and Joey Logano), along with new rules producing parity, it looked like there would be shared room at the inn. With NASCAR’s new format, there’s still plenty of time to make that happen. The problem is, whenever it seems Hendrick’s poised to cash out on top fans don’t wait to see a different ending. Whenever it looks like Johnson’s poised for another run of dominance, the auto reflex is “turn off the channel” instead of “let’s wait and see the end.” There is no good and evil, similar to how the Miami-San Antonio series this season has been portrayed in the NBA. It’s just one nice, shiny Hendrick car with millions of dollars of sponsorship versus another nice, shiny car with millions of sponsorship. May the best man win, choose his words carefully as always afterwards and say nothing that will offend a sponsor, tarnish an image or keep random new fans entertained.

Every dynasty, of course, reaches an end at some point; athletes retire, coaches move on, and other teams build better foundations. But at Hendrick, they’ve positioned themselves for long-term success better than anyone else. Young Chase Elliott, a two-time winner in the Nationwide Series is poised to be the next Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt, still wildly popular nearing age 40 will bring in extra cash, at least for as long as he’s employed by the company. Johnson is 38 and has 5-7 good years left in him, at least along with a pursuit of the mythical “8.” Even the outside teams, building for their futures need that HMS stamp of approval. Young Kyle Larson? He’s running with a former Hendrick engineer, over at Chip Ganassi Racing along with Hendrick engines and support.

You could say that with a salary cap, and/or NASCAR working to introduce more parity Hendrick would be under constant siege, like the New York Yankees over in Major League Baseball. But there is no franchising here. It’s let the best man win, spend nine figures if you want to… just don’t put more than four teams under your name (but pair up with as many other “teams” as you want!) That leaves no checks in place for a team like Hendrick to climb back down to the masses; the only thing NASCAR can throw out there is new rules, cheaper alternatives designed to bring parity back. But who will typically figure those out, over the course of a nine-month season quicker than anyone else? The team with five employees or one with 500, who can reach out to about 1,000 others or take their engines, chassis, or simple ability to compete right off the table.

The Hendrick “dynasty” continued at Michigan. Johnson, Harvick, even Gordon and Earnhardt had to be pleased with their runs on Sunday. Their reign atop the standings looks firmer each week, along with their grip on NASCAR’s short and long-term future. Could the sport survive without them? Will the sport thrive with them?

Either way, their future seems tied together like a 20-ton anvil every time another HMS title gets added to the shelf. Whether NASCAR should have controlled things better is a moot point, now with so much of the grid under Hendrick influence. There’s no turning back… only trying to work with a “dynasty” that could see no end.

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

23 comments

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  2. It’s becoming comical reading the whining about Hendrick. Nascar has done everything over the last 10 years to slow the 48 juggernaut and so far have been unsuccessful. Their lastest version of the stop the 48, the new chase change could come back and smack them in the face like a dead mackerel. It looks like they have to learn the hard way with their foolish changes which just sheds more fans. There are going to be a lot of hard feelings when some favorites get eliminated, and the crowning touch would be a 48 7th championship. Someone at the top will be wiping egg off their face and of course quickly preparing for the next round of Johnson roadblocks…maybe this time they could have him run in reverse.

  3. The 48 has killed NASCAR completely. Do you think it’s just a coincidence that ratings and attendance dropped soon after the 48 started dominating? Media blames the economy, but people still could watch from home if they wanted to. They don’t.

    • Agreed. People are watching them show up, supposedly have a “bad run” at the beginning of an event, and then miraculously appear past halfway having “worked on it all day.” This when they’re not three tenths faster right off the truck. And coupled with TV crews that seem loathe to talk about anything non-Hendrick, it’s easy to wear down a TV audience. It’s a replay of the late 90′s, where unless it was the #24, it didn’t matter that much. Even MRN seems to have the Kool Aid chilled and on-hand, falling all over themselves to repeat that Larson had a Hendrick powerplant. And imagine having paid to go see the Hendrick Show, wasting however many miles and dollars to witness a foregone conclusion in person. Who enjoys that, besides a frontrunner fan or a little kid who doesn’t know any better?

  4. To further the point made by mikeyfan5599 about Hendrick making the rules, I remember when the COT came out in 2007 and they dominated the first several races where that car was used. A Hendrick team member, when asked about their domination, stated the other teams were “trying things with the car that we were doing a year ago”. Now if the rules weren’t finalized until shortly before the first COT race, how were they a year ahead of everyone if they didn’t already know what the rules package was going to be?
    But that’s the problem with NASCAR, countless questions like the ones we are talking about are just scoffed at as “whining” or “conspiracy theories”.

    • Jeff, it is a known fact HMS developed the COT they worked on it starting in 2005 and wrote the rules package for the COT. That is why HMS dominated the first year running the car part time and then in 2008 when the car was run full time.

  5. Rouse definitely has to get his program together. If you’ll recall he had trouble when the ill fated COT came out. With way The Penske team is performing it’s not hp that’s the problem. Roush has said publicly that they are missing the set up.

    NASCAR has demonstrated over and over that they will use the debris caution call as a way to control a race. They just can’t get it thru their heads that inconsistency in their calls just plain turns people off. It adds to the perception that the sport is more of an exhibition like the World Wrestling Fereration. It is not what is true, or not , it’s what is perceived that counts. Once you lose the fans confidence that the sport is honest it is extremely difficult to win that confidence back. And that is exactly where the sport is today.

  6. NASCAR has always been in Chevy’s pocket. It did not matter. RCR had the golden show for the 80, and early 90′s then HMS took over in the mid 90′s until now.
    I am still trying to figure out how Roush won consecutive championships in 03 and 04 due to this obvious Chevy love from NASCAR. Until NASCAR has the balls to actually be fair in all aspects of its modis operandi and not show fairly blatant favoritism to one team or brand it will not change and the sport will no longer grow.
    Guessing in the next 3-5 years high schools and colleges could get a pretty good deal on grandstand seating from race tracks that have NASCAR events.

  7. The even more amazing thing is they beat one of the biggest corporations in the world each week with their factory built Toyota engines. I’m by no means a Hendrick fan but he is small time compared to Toyota.

    • And you don’t think GM isn’t throwing Millions into the sport. Your a fool or you speak like a fool.

      • Sure they are but your fool can’t do much with a factory built engine and car.

        • And your a fool if you don’t think GM is doing research for HMS and that HMS is not getting favors from NASCAR such as being the exclusive team to build, test and write the rules for the new car.

  8. Even though I was a fan back in the days of the Petty dominance I dont seem to remember the outcry against them that there is against the 48. Maybe it was because we didn’t have the internet. But its hard not to laugh when people who are upset with HMS applaud a win by Jr. Maybe they dont realize Hendrick owns his car.
    Oh well, its just sports entertainment. Interesting, sometimes even exciting, but not the end of the world.

    • Maybe in the past it wasn’t so blantant that NASCAR cheated for GM. But let’s look at the Petty Era. Petty won with MOPAR, in fact the 426 was so dominate NASCAR started putting weight penalties on them until the car weighed more than a 1,000 lbs more than the minimum. When that didn’t work, they dropped the size of the engine to 369 CID. When Chrysler came out with the 363 Hemi they still won races. So NASCAR stated the engine size to 359 CID since the largest engine Chrysler had that could be bored out was a 318 and it had already been bored to a 340 NASCAR ran Chrysler (MOPAR) out of the sport in 1976. Now fast forward to today, As pointed out earlier, NASCAR had HMS design, write the rules and test the car they run today, no other team or manufacture had a say nor could they try to test anything because they had no idea what the rules package would be. Big Advantage to HMS. You have to ask yourself why Toytoa was so competitive last season with Matt and company but this year they can’t even get a good sniff of victory. A team doesn’t gain or lose that much in this short period of time.

      • In a spec series doesn’t take much. All kinds of examples of that: the oil tank cover that “accidently” came off Carl Edwards car. The rear bumper that came off Bobby Allisons car, now Kyle Larsons. Special radiators at Hendrick to allow more tape on the grill, and on and on.
        Its a never ending race between the engineers and whichever one gets ahead wins. Notice the passing reference to engine mapping as the cars go into the corners? Now with FI and ECU’s there’s all kinds of stuff that could be done that you’ll never see.

  9. Banjo Mathews said it a long time ago “speed costs money, how fast do you want to go”. Hendrick more then likely spends and generates more money then any other team. Taking into account that they support ten cars on the track which is almost 25 % of the field they should be posting the numbers they do. This coupled with the fact that over half of the 43 car field will not win a race without a lucky break, Ragan at Talladega comes to mind, makes , the odds become overwhelming for Hendricks dominance. Then throw in the fan perception that Hendrick receives breaks from NASCAR and you have the makings for fans to lose interest in the sport. However it is not fair to blame Hendrick completely for the loss of paying fans and tv viewers. It goes much further then that but does contribute to the problem. Jimmy Johnson is fine man and driver but people get tired of the same old, same old. His overwhelming success is not helpng the sport. It’s not right for this to happen but it does. Another thing is him tying or going ahead of Petty and Earnhardt in the championship arena will not be as popular as one would think. Sometimes there are some records that fans do not want to see broken. This could damn near be one of them.

  10. Not much to add here. NASCAR has always been corrupt. Clean fair racing has never been the objective. Can you imagine Hendrick allowing NASCAR to do something like mandating the use of hopped up (old man term) production engines rather than forcing everyone to use motors from at most three to four sources. I enjoyed the column but I have one minor quibble, there are no ” random new fans”. Look in the stands.

  11. I agree with everything kb said. It’s obvious to everyone that still watches that the Hendrick crowd plays by a different set of rules than everyone else. One example out of a thousand was last year (I believe) when the Hendrick cars were running the trick rear ends. At Darlington, Jeff Gordon runs his left-rear wheel through the battery box, and the other teams start screaming about what was going on with that car. The official word from NASCAR was that “oh, we know what they’re doing, it’s legal”. 2 or 3 races later, when everyone else is doing it, NASCAR bans those rear ends. So as long as Hendrick was the only one doing it, it was ok.
    It was also funny how the minimum age to sign a driver was 16, but out of the blue NASCAR changes it to 15 and within hours, Chase Elliott is signed. These contracts are usually something that takes weeks to draw up. Now does anyone really think that “Mr.” Hendrick didn’t have anything to do with NASCAR changing that rule? These are things that should be obvious to fans, but unfortunately it’s not (to most that still watch).
    The point of all this is, is that NASCAR is an extremely crooked outfit. For some reason, many years ago they hitched their cart to Rick Hendrick’s wagon. The biggest problem I see is that, just like their counterparts in the political media, the NASCAR media seems to want to be cheerleaders instead of investigating.

  12. So what is the answer?
    Would not allowing an owner to supply any teams but the four “official” teams help? I think it would. The economies of scale gained by allowing HMS to maintain satellite/shadow teams like Stewart Haas and Ganassi certainly adds to the advantage. In fact, I’d tell RCR that if they wanted to become more competitive the best thing they could do right now is to start leasing engines from HMS.
    I think NASCAR was on the right path when they limited team owners to 4 teams. Many argued it should be 2 or 3. However the number doesn’t really matter as long as shadow teams can exist, does it?
    On the other hand, how many of the teams leasing engines from HMS, RCR, RFR could afford to exist if they had to build their own chasis and engines. The startup costs would be even more prohibitive than they are now.
    And with that in mind, doesn’t the current Toyota TRD engine shop pretty much do the same thing HMS is doing? Building economies of scale by having one shop create all the engines.
    I don’t really see any answer given the business model that NASCAR has. All I know is that I am a Gordon fan and even I am getting tired of the lack of competition and the predictability that has resulted in the last decade.

  13. Yes, another great win for Hendrick in the Hendrick Cup series to make the Hendrick Chase to the Hendrick Championship.

  14. Tom why didn’t you tell everyone that HMS was the sole designer of the Gen5 and the Gen 6 car? Why didn’t you say HMS was the one who wrote, tested and implemented the new package the teams are running this year? Why didn’t you say Stewart Hendrick racing is the 5-8 teams of Hendrick Motorsports, (after all the chassis, engines, engineering etc all comes from HMS, SHR builds nothing. Why didn’t you mention the past 2 weeks someone from another team “helped” keep a HMS car on the track by backing up and allowing the 88 to get trash off their nose. Yet last year the likes of you called for MWR to be run out of the game when the 55 helped a TEAMMATE make the chase. Who knows the 88 may have blown up last week and would never have won. This past week the same thing the 88 would have blown up.

    Why didn’t you mention that NASCAR insured the 48 won the race when they refused to throw a debris caution when the 3 shredded a tire and had debris all over the track. It was even shown on TNT the big chunk of rubber that came off the car.

    No those stories won’t be told by the media because if it was NASCAR would pull the credentials and you’d be out of a job.

    • Not a mikeyfan but you nailed it. I did think TNT petty and dallen* did a good job on the situation. First they revealed jamie car was slowing. Second they revealed jamie was an HMS affiliation car. Third they questioned why jamie with zero wins would help out junior who has two.

      Cant ask for more than that. Now its up to the media to expound on that issue. Where is the 100% rule on that one.

  15. Wow, another writer with blinders on…I guess job security. YOU lost legitmicy when you said the word “legit” and Nascar in the same sentence. Trying to say Hendrick brings (or should) more fans based on you analogy of other ‘legit” and dynastic teams is laughable It shows how the Nascar media paycheck writers are out of touch with reality. I have said it before and will say it again, I refuse to believe that all other teams are just that deficient and behind the eight ball regarding the even parity rule and playing field. To question the talent and dedication and hard work of other teams is disgraceful. I saw what I saw today with a saddened heart, nothing is going to change, too much money to be made by a few. The media will continue to spoon feed or deflect questions regarding Nascar and Hms by saying what they always say..”other teams need to step up their game”. Bull.