Commentary

Keeping four stars happy a job Hendrick ready to tackle in 2009

Rick Hendrick's 2009 lineup may be the Dream Team it appears to be. Or maybe balancing the needs of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin will be Hendrick's worst nightmare, writes David Newton.

Updated: July 10, 2008, 7:06 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Text message from Jimmie Johnson, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:30 a.m. Rick. ? Noticed u gave Martin btr engine than me Sunday. Im only 35 points behind and would really like that fourth straight title. Can u fix it ASAP? :-(

Rick Hendrick, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:35 a.m. Ur my best drvr JJ. I'd like nothing more than to make that come true. FWIW, let me check with the boys at the shop to see what's goin' on. :-)

Rick Hendrick, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:38 a.m. Hey Tony Eury Jr. Tryin' to get u a couple of extra horsepower for the Phoenix race so Junior can get back in the runnin' for the title. R u happy with that? :-)

Dale Earnhardt Jr., Nov. 10, 2009, 10:39 a.m. Thx. Tony told me about the extra horses. Those guys never saw it coming. LMHO.

Jeff Gordon, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:40 a.m. Rick, OMG! Im four-time champ here. Why r u givin' the good stuff to everybody besides the 24?4COL! :-(

Rick Hendrick, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:41 a.m. Jeff, FYI. Ur the crown jewel of HMS. Don't believe everything u r hearing. :-)

Mark Martin, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:43 a.m. Golly, Rick. When we were texting out our contract last June and u promised to put everything into making me and the 5 a champion I was a bit skeptical. U r the man!

Rick Hendrick, Nov. 10, 2009, 10:44 a.m. No, Mark u r the man! GMTA. :-)

Rick Hendrick may soon know what it feels like to be Chuck Daly, who coached the original basketball "Dream Team" to represent the United States in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

The Sprint Cup organization of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin he's put together for 2009 is the equivalent of Daly's basketball team that included NBA megastars Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley.

"It was like Elvis and the Beatles put together," Daly said at the time. "Traveling with the Dream Team was like traveling with 12 rock stars."

Daly made it work. The team that also included centers David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, as well as forward Karl Malone and swingman Scottie Pippen, won by an average of 44 points to bring home the gold.

Hendrick may also discover what it was like to be Larry Brown in 2004. With another group of stars, albeit not the caliber Daly had, the U.S. had to settle for the bronze amidst allegations of selfishness and poor chemistry.

Not that it is entirely fair to compare Hendrick's "Dream Team" with those in other sports. It's not as if his four drivers have to share the ball with one another. Although they are teammates with crews that share information, each works more as an individual when it comes to race day.

This is closer to golf's Ryder Cup, where the best U.S. players face the best European players for bragging rights. Just as Tiger Woods can't make a putt for Phil Mickelson, Gordon can't take the wheel for one of his teammates at Martinsville because he happens to be better at that track.

Even then it's not a fair comparison. All the individuals in the Ryder Cup are playing to win the championship as a team.

Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt and Martin are driving to win an individual championship. Sure, it can be shared by the organization. But Johnson isn't going to spend the offseason happy that he finished seventh in points just because Martin became the oldest driver to win a title at 50.

The key in all of this, as it is with most sports regardless of the talent, is chemistry. If one or two of Hendrick's drivers are unhappy, that could throw off the dynamics of the entire shop.

Say Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are upset they haven't won a race in six months. They easily could stop sharing all of their information with Gordon and Steve Letarte, which could hurt the efforts of the No. 24 team.

Gordon is confident the boss knows what he's doing.

"Rick's been pretty good at balancing that out all of the years so far. He'll do fine now," Gordon said. "There are no team orders. It's about how you jell with your team and utilize the resources.

"… We've got an incredible lineup for next year. I'm excited. Mark brings a tremendous amount of information, experience, drive to our organization. There's more positives that come out of it than negatives. But the negative might be we might have to battle against him for the championship like our other teammates."

And that's where Hendrick comes in. Although he says there's more pressure on the drivers than him, it all comes down to how he keeps them pulling in the same direction.

"You know, each one of them has told me they can beat the other guy," Hendrick said. "And privately, I agree with them [laughter]."

Sounds like George Steinbrenner telling Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi in private each was his best hitter on the 2004 New York Yankees.

The Yankees, by the way, didn't reach the World Series that season.

Hendrick has a "Murderer's Row" kind of lineup. It's arguably the best the sport has seen with Gordon (81), Johnson (34), Martin (35) and Earnhardt (18) combining for 168 wins.

That's almost like teaming Richard Petty (200 wins), David Pearson (105), Cale Yarborough (83) and Dale Earnhardt (76) in their prime.

The difference here is Gordon, Johnson, Martin and Earnhardt Jr. all apparently have egos that will allow them to coexist. Putting Petty and Pearson or Pearson and Yarborough on the same team would be like combining Ric Flair and Roddy Piper in a tag team match.

Woooooooo! That wouldn't work.

"That probably would have been very difficult in that period of time," three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip said. "They pretty well had a monopoly on winning and they didn't need any teammates.

"It would have been a free fall at best on who got the best motor, the best car."

Petty agrees, reminding drivers didn't come into the sport expecting to have teammates then as they do now.

"It would have been kind of difficult for any of us to accept," he said.

Hendrick understands the importance of that acceptance. He talked with each driver at great length before making the decision to hire Martin to replace Casey Mears.

"It's a fit factor that you want in your organization," he said. "If you want to add something or do something, you want it to be positive and not a minus and not pull it down."

It's all about chemistry. That's one reason Hendrick let Kyle Busch go after last season in favor of Earnhardt.

And although Busch has a series-leading six wins at Joe Gibbs Racing, there are no regrets about letting him go.

"Having a team that's capable of winning a championship makes the other three better," Hendrick said. "It makes them step up. It makes them more competitive. And that's what I admire about Jimmie, Junior and Jeff. They don't hesitate in getting the best talent you can get because they feel like it'll make them better and they feel like they can beat the guy, whoever it is.

"And that's the way real race drivers need to be."

Text message: Rick Hendrick, Nov. 30, 2009, 9 a.m. Jeff, Jimmie and Dale, u r all champs. BTW, you all could have won the title Martin did last night. H&K. CWYL. :-)

[Note: For those not well versed on the art of chat abbreviation, go to http://techdictionary.com/chat.html for further explanation.]

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

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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