Commentary

Martin gives HMS dream-team lineup

A four-time champ, a three-time defending champ, the most popular driver and the sentimental favorite. Just call it an embarrassment of riches for Rick Hendrick.

Updated: February 6, 2009, 6:16 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Rick Hendrick has reached his silver anniversary as a Cup team owner. He started in 1984 with five employees, one driver (Geoff Bodine) and 5,000 square feet of rented work space.

"I never dreamed we would make it 25 years," Hendrick said. "I just wanted to get through the first year without closing up the shop. I never thought we would win a race."

My oh my, how things have changed. Hendrick Motorsports has 175 victories and eight Cup championships.

The Hendrick complex today (located in Concord, N.C.) looks more like a college campus than a racing operation. It covers 100 acres and has more than 500 employees. The workers take golf carts between the buildings.

Hendrick has more engineers, more fabricators, more engine builders and more mechanics than any other team.

In an era in which the down economy is causing massive cutbacks for many Cup operations, how do you catch up to a team that has you outmanned in almost every area?

Entering its 26th season, Hendrick Motorsports is the best of the best. And the scary part is, it keeps getting better.

Hendrick Motorsports

The 2009 driver lineup for Hendrick Motorsports features two champions with seven Cup titles between them. The other two drivers are among the sport's most popular:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Car No.: 88
Crew chief: Tony Eury Jr.
2008 finish: 12th
2009 outlook: Contend for the championship in his sophomore season at Hendrick by winning more races and avoiding a late-season fade that plagued the team last year.

Jeff Gordon

Car No.: 24
Crew chief: Steve Letarte
2008 finish: Seventh, but didn't win a race for the first time in 15 years.
2009 outlook: Hoping to get back to Victory Lane and seriously contend for a fifth championship.

Jimmie Johnson

Car No.: 48
Crew chief: Chad Knaus
2008 finish: First
2009 outlook: Hoping to become the first driver in history to win four consecutive Cup championships.

Mark Martin

Car No.: 5
Crew chief: Alan Gustafson
2008 finish: 28th for Martin in part-time duty; 20th for the No. 5 Chevy with Casey Mears as the driver.
2009 outlook: One last shot at a Cup championship for Martin, a four-time runner-up.

This season already has a moniker at the Hendrick shop: "The Drive for 9 on 09."

Leading the effort is the man chasing history. Jimmie Johnson has won the past three Sprint Cup championships in the No. 48 Chevy. Now he can become the first driver to win four consecutive titles.

"How can you bet against the 48 team?" Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon asked. "There's no doubt that they've got an excellent shot at doing four in a row, and they've got a lot of pressure on them, as well."

Gordon also is feeling some pressure to win again. As good as things are on NASCAR's super team, they aren't perfect when a four-time Cup champion goes winless for an entire season.

After winning six times in 2007 and finishing as the runner-up to Johnson in the title hunt, Gordon failed to win a race in 2008 for the first time since his rookie season in 1993.

"Jeff is as fired up as I've ever seen him," Hendrick said. "We're talking about a guy who is super competitive. You don't have to motivate him. He had a lot of freak things happen to him last season. His engine failure at Phoenix [in November] easily could have been Jimmie and would have cost Jimmie the championship."

In three of the past four seasons, Gordon ended the year outside the top five in the standings. He was seventh in 2008 but finished with five top-10s in his last six starts.

"All of us were shocked we didn't end up with a win," Gordon said. "The longer it went, the more we pressed the issue. I learned you have to go with what you know and not try to reinvent the wheel."

Funny he should bring that up. One thing that sets Hendrick apart is his ability to constantly reinvent his empire and give it a fresh look. If there's a formula to his success, that's part of it.

Last year, Hendrick Motorsports became The Dream Team, and it's gotten a litter dreamier this year.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. came on board last year and gave Hendrick NASCAR's most popular driver. Now Hendrick has added the sentimental favorite of the fans -- Mark Martin.

"Mark fits here like a glove," Hendrick said. "He's going to make us all better."

The four-time runner-up for the championship has one last chance to win the Cup title at age 50. And driving in the Hendrick stable might be the best chance of his career.

"This is the most excited I've been in as long as I can remember," Martin said. "It's an incredible opportunity at this point in my life."

Earnhardt had similar feelings last year when he left his family's team to join the Hendrick operation. Earnhardt had one victory and was second in the standings after 22 races, but didn't run well in the Chase and finished 12th.

"We threw away two or three wins in the first half of last season," Earnhardt said. "Then things seemed to get away from us late in the year. But we learned a lot that will help us going into this season."

If that's true, we might see a second Earnhardt as a Cup champion.

For Hendrick, it's an all-star cast striving for another championship run. All four of his drivers are capable of winning the title in 2009.

What other team owner can make that claim?

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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