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Who will Hendrick 'Victory Bell' toll for next?

March 23, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Victory Bell Hendrick team

Post-win tradition a way of uniting Hendrick team

FONTANA, Calif. -- Of course, it looks like a little race car. It has black rubber tires and a multi-link steering arm and decals on the front and sides. It was built by a fabricator in the team’s performance shop. It’s not so much pushed, but driven. It even corners like a champ.

So yes, if Hendrick Motorsports was going to come up with a tradition through which to celebrate the organization’s triumphs on the race track, it was going to carry over a familiar theme. Which is why Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson were at the team’s Concord, N.C., headquarters Tuesday, ringing a bell that for more than two years now has sounded throughout the complex after each of the team’s victories.

“We go through each department with this cool little cart that was built with go-kart tires on it, and the bell,” Johnson said at Auto Club Speedway, site of Sunday’s Sprint Cup Series event. “You ring the bell and they line up, shake the driver’s hand, and pass out some swag, and then we move on to the next department. Outside of your hearing being destroyed for the rest of the day, it’s a lot of fun and very cool to see everybody.”

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Because of media obligations and travel, Johnson didn’t get to ring the bell after his victory in the Daytona 500. So this week he joined Kahne, who won NASCAR’s most recent premier-series event last Sunday at Bristol, yanking the cord on a gold bell that was steered through the Hendrick campus. Jeff Gordon did the same thing after his victory in last season’s finale, even bringing along his kids. Dale Earnhardt Jr. did it after his most recent victory last August, and looks forward to doing it again.

“The fans really like it when you go into Victory Lane, obviously,” Earnhardt said. “… But man, it’s really different when you go into the shop and you see those employees that don’t actually travel. You get to go around and talk to every single one and ring the bell. They get into it and get excited. Every employee rings the bell. It’s fun. I enjoyed that. I thought it was a good way to bring everybody together as one team.”

Which is the whole idea. While a rather simple concept, the “Victory Bell” is a typically-Hendrick way of uniting those who work in the race shop and those who travel to the track on weekends, two groups that work toward the same goal even if they don’t always work side by side. It was Marshall Carlson, the team’s president and chief operating officer, who first came up with the idea after seeing something similar used in college football rivalries. In those cases, the winning team took possession of the bell. At Hendrick, everyone would celebrate with it.

“We’ve got 600 people working out here now, and most of those do not go to the track regularly,” Carlson said by phone. “… It’s trying to find a way to bring some of that excitement from the track back to the campus after a win, so that everyone that’s involved in it -- which is everyone here -- feels some of that excitement, literally. … It’s really just trying to create a way for the folks here, who work so hard in supporting the teams and putting effort into performance, also get to feel some of that excitement and immediacy of the success.”

So the team built what looks like a bell perched on top of a go-kart, and the tradition at Hendrick began early in the 2011 campaign. As with any new vehicle, there were periods of trial and error. At first, people thought it was a fire drill. It banged into a few things. It was wheeled into every corner of the team’s vast race shop, a journey that took forever to complete. Over time the routine was cut down to about an hour, with employees gathering in certain areas. Even so, the bell still rings about 600 times each trip.

Gordon was in a team debrief when he heard the bell ringing Tuesday. “The whole organization really rallies around it,” he said. “It’s turned into a very cool tradition. There’s nobody at Hendrick who doesn’t wish they were ringing the bell the next week.”

The winning team will distribute mementos -- Victory Lane caps for Johnson’s win in the Daytona 500 this year, commemorative bricks for his triumph at Indianapolis last season -- all along the way. After her father’s victory at Homestead, Gordon’s daughter Ella (wearing a headset to protect her ears from the noise) took great glee in handing out stickers. That’s not unusual; Kahne’s crew chief Kenny Francis brought his son to a bell-ringing ceremony last year, and Carlson said road crewmen will come in on their days off to take part.

“Rick, in his automotive business and his motorsports business, has a principle that we’re going to celebrate it together, and we’re going to try to celebrate it big,” he said. “If we win a championship, everyone on deck gets a replica champion’s ring. No matter what you do here or what role you play, you’re going to get a champion’s ring. What that does is, it really reinforces unity and focus …. All those things stem from Rick’s overarching guidance that when we have success, we need to reinforce that everyone is a part of that. We did it together.”

That’s what happened Tuesday when Johnson and Kahne took part, with one driver’s accomplishment being honored in the morning and the other’s in the afternoon. Now, the question looms -- whom might the bell ring for next? Auto Club certainly looms as a possibility, given that Johnson, Gordon and Kahne are all past winners here, and Earnhardt’s two most recent victories have come on a 2-mile Michigan track that bears some similarities to its sister facility in the Golden State.

Even so, Earnhardt cautions against shining up that bell too soon.

“The surfaces are two totally different surfaces, especially with the new repave at Michigan,” he said. “… There are some things in the setup that I’m sure are similar, in the way the car travels and the loads the car sees in each corner … so there may be some things in the setup that correlate between the two tracks and we can carry some improvements we made at one to the next one and have it work. But the way you drive them and the way you race them are two totally different things.”

A victory seems the only thing missing this season for Earnhardt, who stands second in Sprint Cup points after four top-10s in as many starts so far. “It would mean a lot to him on many levels, and for his team,” Johnson said. And given that all three of his teammates have won over the past five races stretching back to last year, Earnhardt relishes the idea of getting his turn with the Victory Bell once again.

“I’m ready to ring the hell out of it,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, and I’d like to do that more often. Because the employees and all those people that work really hard on the cars, they don’t get any credit -- don’t get the credit we do, don’t get to travel. They really enjoy that.”

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