Hendrick Motorsports still proving it's the team to beat

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Something is going on in the Hendrick Motorsports garage.

No, that's not a Halloween movie tagline.

But it is kind of a spooky thought.

The most successful NASCAR team has everybody wondering how it consistently produces results -- year after year, champion after champion -- and again is pushing for another as the Sprint Cup series returns to Fort Worth this week for the AAA Texas 500.

"Secret? There's no secrets in our sport," said Jeff Gordon, who has won four championships for owner Rick Hendrick. "You park next to one another. A guy runs good that weekend, you're looking at his car and you've got it figured out two weeks later."

If it's a matter of figuring it out, Hendrick Motorsports is going to be way ahead of the game.

It has more resources than any team in Sprint Cup, hires engineers fresh out of school, tests like crazy, stocks up on equipment and pushes limits.

In September, NASCAR clarified a rule about the rear suspension after some competitors wondered about a change Hendrick had made that resulted in better steering for its cars.

The improvement was perfectly legal, and other teams started doing the same thing, but it added to Hendrick's reputation.

"You can make a rule saying traveling is illegal, but it's how it's enforced that really matters," Brad Keselowski told The Associated Press. "If it's not on LeBron and is on everyone else, it makes for a different game."

In March, Johnson's car failed an inspection at the Daytona 500 because of an illegally modified piece of sheet metal between the roof and side windows.

Chad Knaus has been suspended by NASCAR three times since becoming crew chief for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team.

Yes, something is going on in the Hendrick garage. Sometimes it's legal. Sometimes it's not. But something is always going on.

"They have more employees than anybody else. They have more staff than everybody else. They're just deeper than anybody else," said veteran Sporting News reporter Bob Pockrass, who has been covering NASCAR for 20 years. "So when something happens or there's a new idea, they can develop it much more quickly than everybody else.

"Money buys speed."

Plenty of NASCAR teams have money. Joe Gibbs Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are comparable to Hendrick in terms of resources and money, and so are at the top of the sport, also.

But while Hendrick produced five championships in the past six years, Gibbs hasn't had a championship since 2005. Roush hasn't had a champion since 2004.

Hendrick has 10 of the past 17 Sprint Cup titles, won by either Johnson, Gordon or Terry Labonte.

The other championships in that span belong to Gibbs (three), Roush (two), Robert Yates (1) and Stewart Haas (one).

Johnson has a chance to make it 11 out of 18. He enters today's Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway in second place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, seven points behind Keselowski, with four races to go.

A victory here for Johnson is more than possible. Hendrick cars have won 18 times at Martinsville since 1984. Johnson and Gordon have 13 victories between them here since 1996.

"It's a team sport, it's not just the driver getting the job done in the car," Johnson said. "It's the people preparing the race cars, it's the pit stops, it's crisis management, which we had last weekend. I would expect that out of the top team, and I certainly expect it out of my team."

Hendrick put all four of its cars in the Chase this season, including its newest driver, Kasey Kahne, who has won twice this year after winning only once in the previous two years with Red Bull Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who despite missing the past two races with a concussion, has 10 top-5 finishes this season.

If there is a mystique about Hendrick, it is showing.

"When you're in a good, solid and well-performing organization, got four teams in the Chase, it speaks volumes about what kind of race team you have," Gordon said. "That in itself gives you a slight advantage. You've got a five-time champion in Jimmie Johnson, a four-time champion in myself, and you look at Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the kind of years that they're having and the type of talent that they have, a lot of people outside our organization look at us as the powerhouse and say, 'Wow, you just can't ever count them out.' So that definitely gives you a bit of an advantage, yes.

"But the way we look at it is, the only advantage that comes is when we perform and in how we build our race cars and constantly try to keep up with the competition... We know when we don't do that, we've let ourselves down ...because we have the resources to do it."

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407

Twitter: @calexmendez

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