Hendrick keeps putting it together, but Winston Cup title still eludes him


It's apparent times are hard for Winston Cup car owner Rick Hendrick. Imagine anyone saying selling cars -- "even in a recession" -- is easier than the auto racing business. But if anyone wants to write another book about how money can't buy a championship, Hendrick is the man to see. Hendrick owns more Honda dealerships in the United States than anyone else. He just opened No. 42 last week in Woodbridge, Va.

But for all his money, he has not been able to win a Winston Cup championship. It isn't for lack of trying, and it isn't for lack of talent. In eight years in the sport, Hendrick has had the best of everything from drivers to crew chiefs.

"It just seems every time I get the train rolling, something happens," Hendrick says. "Sometimes I can't help but think about what might have been. . . ."

What might have been if driver Tim Richmond, one of the most talented men ever to drive a stock car, hadn't contracted AIDS and died? Richmond drove for Hendrick in 1986. He won seven races and sat on the pole 10 times, but finished third in the championship race.

What might have happened if Darrell Waltrip hadn't decided at the end of the 1990 season that it was time to start his own team, and asked Hendrick to help him do it? In 1989, Waltrip won six races, and six poles, and probably should have won the title, but finished fourth in points.

What might have happened if Hendrick hadn't decided to participate in the production of the Tom Cruise movie "Days of Thunder" in 1990, building two cars for the movie and taking away from his own three-team effort, convincing Waltrip is was time to leave?

Hendrick thinks about what might have been if driver Ricky Rudd and crew chief Waddell Wilson hadn't fallen out with each over the last several months of last season, while challenging Dale Earnhardt for the title. Rudd finished second by 195 points.

"Yeah, I would have been better off without the movie -- I didn't know what a distraction it would be -- but it was an experience and it was about my life, about how I got into racing," Hendrick says. "Overall it was good for racing -- brought new sponsors into the sport, opened new doors, brought new fans to the sport -- but yeah, the team suffered.

"Tim Richmond. If he'd stayed alive and been healthy, how many championships would we have won by now? What if Darrell hadn't decided to leave when he did? I do think about it, but I don't dwell on it."

But the what-ifs keep mounting. What might have been if Hendrick hadn't taken time from his own team last winter to help Redskins coach Joe Gibbs put his new team together? And what might be happening right now if driver Ken Schrader hadn't developed a disk problem in his neck, causing so much pain it affected his competitiveness and forced him to have surgery three weeks ago?

"We should have won the title last year, but the chemistry was bad between Ricky and Waddell," says Hendrick. "They couldn't decide what the problem was -- was it the car, the chassis, the driver, the crew? I think in the end, the pressure simply got to both of them and we finished second.

"All I could do was sit there and watch the thing drain away. But we had what should have been considered a good year. A lot of teams would love to have had our year -- a lot of teams would love to have our overall record -- but it was miserable to us."

Hendrick sits back in his chair and smiles. It is a smile that says, "What can I do? I'm giving it everything I've got."

As the Winston Cup Series rolls into Long Pond, Pa., for today's Miller Genuine Draft 500, Hendrick is hoping it will be the beginning of something good, because so far, this season has been a wash.

"It's been horrible," says Schrader, who is 14th in points. "I've hurt us with my neck problems. I had to get it fixed or the team was going to kill me."

Schrader can't define exactly when his problems started, saying, "It's the culmination of 22 years of hitting stuff." But he did take a good hard lick at Daytona in February, when he got caught up in the Sterling Marlin, Bill Elliott and Ernie Irvin crash that took out most of the front-runners barely halfway into the race.

Since then, and until his June 22 operation, his team hauled a traction machine from race to race. Between practices and qualifying, Schrader would sit in the transport with 20 pounds of dead weight stretching his vertebrae. At night, he also used traction, and when that didn't help, he'd spend hours in a hot shower.

"The doctors told him it would take nine weeks to get back to racing," says Hendrick. "But he ran the entire race at Daytona less than two weeks later. The doctors still can't believe it, but we all think he was in so much pain before the operation, that the pain he is feeling now, while it would be unbearable for us, feels almost good in comparison to him."

At the Firecracker 400, Schrader and teammate Ricky Rudd hooked up in a fast draft and were moving toward the front at a lively pace late in the race. Hendrick thought his cars had a chance to finish one-two, but Rudd's car started pushing, forcing him to slow down and Schrader, 12 days out of surgery, finished sixth.

"Those are all excuses," Hendrick says. "But the facts are the same. Next season, I'm going to try to narrow my focus. This year, we contracted to make engines for both Darrell's team and Gibbs' team. Some weeks, I've had to give those teams better engines than I've had available for my own teams. Next year, I'm only going to do the engines for Gibbs. I'm trying to get to the point where we have everything in house.

"But I have a hard time saying no."

Does he ever. He has signed Jeff Gordon for next year, meaning he will be fielding a three-car team instead of two.

"I think it's going to be good," he says. "I think Jeff can be another Tim Richmond. I think he has that kind of talent. You can't teach a guy to drive a car out of control -- but Tim could do it and Jeff can do it. . . . Yeah, I'm gambling. But I think it's going to work."

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