Commentary

Have Hendrick Motorsports foes done enough to close the gap in '08?

Hendrick Motorsports drivers won half of the Sprint Cup races in 2007. Will HMS rivals be able to close the cavernous gap in '08? Kevin Harvick thinks so, writes David Newton.

Updated: January 22, 2008, 5:23 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

WELCOME, N.C. -- The 18,000-square-foot room that is the newest addition to the Richard Childress Racing empire was designed to host big events such as Christmas parties and the 2008 Sprint Cup media tour that made a stop there Monday night.

The beautiful hardwood floors coupled with large tables filled with everything from sea bass to sushi made for a friendly and festive atmosphere.

That changed when it was asked if RCR or anybody on the NASCAR planet could close the gap on Hendrick Motorsports, which won half of last season's 36 Sprint Cup races and claimed a second straight title under Jimmie Johnson.

The cavernous space suddenly turned into a war room.

One could almost picture Gen. George S. Patton Jr. pacing on the makeshift stage as Kevin Harvick began talking.

"We're going to close it," the 2007 Daytona 500 champion said, his voice echoing off the walls as the room became deafly quiet. "We're at least going to be a pain in the ass."

RCR teammate Jeff Burton, sitting a few feet away with a stern look on his face, immediately chimed in.

"We're not here to take an ass-whipping," he said. "We're not here to run second. We're not here to talk about how good Hendrick is. That's not why we exist. … It's time to get it done."

Harvick and Burton could have taken a more low-key approach. You don't usually sneak up on the enemy by making a lot of noise.

However, you also don't beat the enemy by being scared of it, and there obviously is no fear of HMS on this slice of land where the late Dale Earnhardt claimed six of his seven championships.
[+] EnlargeRick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonJimmie Johnson, right, has given owner Rick Hendrick back-to-back Cup driver titles.

"We respect Hendrick a great deal," Burton said. "Our comments had nothing to do with cockiness, with arrogance. We come to races to compete. We as a company have no choice but to go out and do the things we have to do to compete. We believe that'll bear fruit.

"We believe that will ultimately get us where we want to be. It's not going to be easy, but we believe we have the people and resources to do it."

Harvick agreed.

"I'm not scared of a challenge," he said. "Challenges are what motivate me. I love challenges. I love having my back put against the wall. I'm not always going to be right, but eventually, I'm going to knock that wall down.

"That stuff just motivates me to no end. That's what keeps me going."

Closing the gap on HMS, which will host one of Wednesday's tour stops, has been a major topic thus far. But not everybody has been as gung ho as those at RCR.

"No one is going to be able to catch Hendrick," said Felix Sabates, the minority owner in Chip Ganassi Racing. "Unless NASCAR makes a rule that Hendrick can have three tires and the rest can have four, no one will catch them. No one is ever going to catch them.

"That doesn't mean they're going to win every championship. That doesn't mean they're going to win every race, because they don't. But that means when you go to the racetrack, that's the team you have to beat every week. You can beat 'em. People have beaten them before, but you've got to have a lot of luck to beat 'em. All things being equal, you can't touch 'em."

That's true, especially from a financial standpoint. Hendrick, unlike most owners, built his empire on funds earned from car dealerships. He doesn't need the money from racing and sponsors to keep afloat, which is why you don't see him looking for a business partner.

That being said, he makes far more money from racing than any other owner in NASCAR. Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears brought in almost $22 million in race winnings alone in 2007. Johnson then got an additional check for about $7 million for winning the championship.

Harvick, Burton and Clint Bowyer, who all made the championship Chase, brought in just more than $16 million at RCR.

"I don't think you can make up that kind of money," said Steve Lauletta, the president of Ganassi Racing.

We're not here to take an ass-whipping. We're not here to run second. We're not here to talk about how good Hendrick is. That's not why we exist. … It's time to get it done.

-- Jeff Burton

Hendrick also can demand more money from sponsors with his high-profile stable of drivers, which became even more high profile with the addition of NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"Hendrick isn't like a lot of other car teams," Sabates said. "Chip's livelihood is automobile racing. He doesn't have another business. [Jack] Roush now has a partner who demands a return on the big money he paid him. [Joe] Gibbs has to live off this business; it's how he makes his living. Childress doesn't have any other income, plus he's got a partner who owns 50 percent of his business, anyway. So this guy has a responsibility to make cash.

"Rick doesn't need a dime. If he breaks even, he's happy. If he loses money, he's still happy."

Harvick and company hope to make Hendrick a little less happy in 2008. So do other organizations.

"I don't have a tangible thing to tell you why I think I can catch or anybody can catch Rick, but isn't that what sports is about?'' said Ray Evernham, who won three championships as Gordon's crew chief at HMS before forming his own team. "That's what starts competition.

"So do I believe we can beat Rick Hendrick? Yeah, you know what? We didn't win the championship, but we won the most races in 2006 and we were well on our way.''

Actually, Kasey Kahne of Gillett Evernham Motorsports led all drivers with six wins in 2006. Hendrick Motorsports won the most races of any organization with nine.

But Evernham's point was the same as Harvick's: You can't go to the track expecting to be beaten.

"Rick is a great businessman,'' Evernham said. "He's a respected competitor. But he can be beat. That's what's going to keep racing and all sports going. The Giants are going into [the Super Bowl] going, 'Hey, we can beat the Patriots. Who cares if they're undefeated?'

"Who cares if Rick Hendrick has won 27 championships and 50 races in a row? When we go to the race track we're going to try to find a way to beat them. I'll guarantee I'm not the only owner that thinks like that.''

That's definitely the attitude at RCR. Harvick believes the organization has the people and resources to take over the top spot.

"Maybe we aren't using our resources correctly, but there isn't too many facilities in this sport that have more resources than those that are in this facility right here," Harvick said. "We haven't been using them all appropriately, and shame on us for doing that.

"But there isn't a sponsor out there that spends more money than the three sponsors on these cars. Shame on us for not using the resources how we need to use them."

That means better pit stops, better engines and better use of engineers.

"Maybe we just haven't been as organized or had all the people in the right spots," Harvick continued. "I just don't think there is another facility that has more than what we have. We've just got to figure out the right way to appropriately use all those resources.

"We don't want to make excuses. We want to be those leaders that help get us to the point we need to be. We have to take charge and make sure we do what we need to do."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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