CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) — For Hendrick Motorsports, this NASCAR season might seem easy as 1-2-3.
OK, maybe it only looked easy.
No matter if Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin leaves Homestead-Miami on Sunday with the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Hendrick Motorsports – which owns both cars – will have plenty to celebrate. The title, whomever delivers it, will be Rick Hendrick’s ninth in NASCAR, tying him with Petty Enterprises for the most. And it will be his record-setting 12th overall, joining three truck titles.
But there’s a piece of history still out there for Hendrick to chase.
Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon, all of whom race under the Hendrick flag, enter the finale 1-2-3 in the standings. If they finish in those spots, Hendrick Motorsports would become the first team in NASCAR history to truly pull off that feat.
"I hate to be greedy when you think about really wanting to be 1-2-3, but we’re ! sitting there right now with one race to go," Hendrick said Thursday. "That would be so good for the organization. If it happens, it’ll be just icing on the cake. We’ve all thought about it. We’ve all talked about it. That’s our goal."
Has it happened before?
Depends on perspective, really.
Buck Baker, Herb Thomas and Speedy Thompson finished in the top three spots in the 1956 standings after a 56-race schedule. Baker and Thompson both raced for Carl Kiekhaefer, as did Thomas for much of that season. But NASCAR records show Thomas started that season listed as his car’s owner-driver, plus also spent some time that year with Smokey Yunick as his team owner.
So technically, if Hendrick pulls this off Sunday, he would stand alone.
"I’m actually living a dream," Hendrick said. "I grew up and all I knew was racing and cars and working on cars. You didn’t get paid to do it. You did it because you loved it and you take whatever you made to do it. So t! o be able to look back and see what we’ve been able to accomplish, I’v e just been really fortunate being around a lot of great people."
His team is often likened as the Yankees of NASCAR, with good reason.
The results, especially of late, show that whatever is going on in the Hendrick garage tops what everyone else is doing.
At 50, Martin is having what he calls the happiest season of his life. Gordon will likely finish fourth or better in the final standings for the 10th time. And Johnson is on the brink of history, needing only a 25th-place finish to clinch his fourth straight title, breaking the record he shares with Cale Yarborough.
Johnson often tells the story how Hendrick once sat across the table from a team of Lowe’s executives, convincing those potential and eventual sponsors how the driver really would be good enough to win a race someday. Johnson never forgot the faith Hendrick showed that day, and has paid it back many times.
"Somehow, some way, what he possesses in connecting with people, looking for! the right skills, the desire, the drive that an individual may have to perform well and do well, there’s something that he can see and recognize," Johnson said. "I think it speaks volumes to the company and the success of the company. He can pick something up, pick something out … piece everything together."
The respect level the drivers have is clear. Even Martin, a venerable elder statesman in NASCAR, calls the owner "Mr. Hendrick."
Said Hendrick: "I want to go on the record, I’m only 10 years older than he is. I want it to be Rick."
His life only seems the stuff of Hollywood now.
Hendrick’s cap will be turned backward in Victory Lane on Sunday, a tribute to his son Ricky, one of 10 people killed when a Hendrick plane crashed in 2004. Rick Hendrick always tried to get his kid to wear his cap the right way, and his son rarely would listen to Dad on that point.
There’s been so much other drama along the way, too. A rare form of leukemia, whi! ch he beat. A guilty plea to federal mail fraud, which was eventually pardoned by President Clinton. Financial challenges, especially when he was beginning to build his empire.
Now here he stands, about to pull into a tie with Petty Enterprises for the most titles in the stock-car series.
"An opportunity to be around Mr. Hendrick and all the fine people, teammates and people at Hendrick Motorsports, has really made my life rich this year with people and with quality relationships above and beyond any other year that I can ever remember," Martin said Thursday, with Hendrick sitting immediately to his right.
Hendrick bowed his head a bit, hearing those words.
Richard Petty still might be The King, and Johnson might be on the verge of etching his name on a blank page of NASCAR history, but Sunday night will be as much a tribute to Hendrick as anyone else on Victory Lane. His 25th anniversary season in NASCAR will be his best, maybe the best by any team ever.
"I would have to say," Hendrick said, "this is probably as good as it gets."