Mr. H in rarefied air with nine Cup titles
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Rick Hendrick's eyes were fixated on the ceiling of the Grand Hyatt ballroom on Thursday as Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin answered questions on both sides of him. It got to the point where one wondered whether he was distracted by a bug or simply uninterested in what his drivers were saying.
It was neither.
He was, as always, thinking.
In this case he was dwelling on a statistic tossed out at the beginning of the news conference about his team tying Petty Enterprises for the most Sprint Cup titles with nine.
"Legitimately, honestly, it hadn't dawned on me," said the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, not realizing one of Lee Petty's titles wasn't with NASCAR's most storied organization. "I thought Petty had 10. I just realized I tied him."
Lost in the shuffle of Johnson's quest for a record-breaking fourth straight championship and Martin's quest at age 50 to become the oldest driver to win a title is perhaps the biggest story of all:
Because he doesn't drive the car or work under the hood or decide whether to take two tires or four, his accomplishments sometimes are taken for granted like the humidity in South Florida.
A perfect example: HMS wasn't mentioned in a Google search for the sports franchises with the most championships. The New York Yankees top the list with 27, followed by the Montreal Canadiens with 24 and Boston Celtics with 17. At the point where Hendrick should be listed, only the Oakland/Philadelphia Athletics and Green Bay Packers are shown.
You'll argue all those mentioned above are individual teams and HMS has had anywhere from two to four teams during the year. But they're still a part of the organization.
And when you look at the most dominant organizations in sports history, surely HMS has to be in there.
And surely Hendrick, who is guaranteed his ninth Cup championship on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon ranked first through third, deserves most of that credit.
Without his insight, his ability to put together the right people and build chemistry like nobody this sport has seen before and may never see again, neither Johnson nor Martin would be sitting next to him with a chance to make history.
What Hendrick has accomplished with nine Cup titles and 150 wins in the past 15 years may be more impressive than Johnson winning four in a row.
According to the crackerjack research staff at ESPN, the only team owners to win as many or more titles are nine-time champion Jerry Buss with the Los Angeles Lakers and 10-time champions Del Webb and Dan Topping with the Yankees.
That Hendrick overcame great adversity -- losing 10 family members and top executives in a 2004 plane crash, suffering from leukemia and being indicted on federal charges of bribery and mail fraud -- that would have forced many less strong to quit is even more impressive.
"Somehow, some way, what he possesses in connecting with people and looking for the right skills and the desire and drive an individual may have to do well ... when you talk about people skills, there is something he can see and pick out and make stuff happen," Johnson said.
Martin, who refers to his boss as Mr. Hendrick even though they are separated by only 10 years, interrupted the news conference to interject why Thursday's event was an all-HMS affair.
"I've never known an organization that wants to win [more] for the boss," he said. "It feels like to me they want to win more for him than they even want to do for themselves. That's just a testament to what a guy Rick is."
Asked whether it was the same way with Jack Roush during Martin's 19 years at Roush Fenway Racing, he shook his head no.
You'd be hard-pressed to find it that way in any other organization. You never heard the Yankees say they wanted to win for George Steinbrenner or the Chicago Bulls say they wanted to win for Jerry Reinsdorf.
Hendrick is in rarefied air.
Bobby Allison, who won the 1983 title after finishing second five times, agrees that HMS is the best franchise in NASCAR history. He also wonders how his career, as great as it was, might have been if he'd had the opportunity to drive for Hendrick. "Rick Hendrick has the people skills that could have been a real help to me," said Allison, always considered somewhat of a rebel. "If you look back at my career, I won races and got fired several times. That was a little bit my fault. Not much, but a little tiny bit my fault, and Rick probably could have helped."
When Martin was at Roush Fenway, he always thought the advantage Hendrick had on the competition was Gordon, who won four titles from 1995 to 2001. Then it became Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
"Rick and people," Martin said. "He has such a way of inspiring people and making them feel good that they wind up loving him so much that they want to win for him even before they want to win for themselves. It's amazing how the people that work there feel toward him."
As Martin talked about why he shouldn't be considered one of the greatest drivers ever, Hendrick raised his hand like a 7-year-old in elementary school and asked whether he could ask a question.
He turned to Johnson and told him to explain why Martin is one of the greatest ever.
Hendrick made Martin feel special without saying a word.
"No arrogance," Martin said. "Just good communication and people skills."
Hendrick is humbled by all of this. Perhaps that's one reason he spent so much time staring at the ceiling. He's almost embarrassed by his riches.
"It's hard for me to believe that we're sitting here tied with Richard Petty," he said. "I don't feel worthy of it."
Don't be fooled. Hendrick surely didn't spend all of the hourlong news conference thinking of being tied with Petty Enterprises. He probably was thinking of ways to motivate the organization for next season so he'll be back on the stage 12 months from now.
"I won four in a row before and then thought I'd have five or six more [in a row], and then we went through a valley," Hendrick said of his run from 1995 to 1998 with Gordon and Terry Labonte. "So you don't take for granted you're going to be back next year."
No, you stare at the ceiling and think.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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