News & Media

During drought, Hendrick never lost faith in Junior

June 19, 2012, David Caraviello,

Team owner put onus of winless skid on his shoulders and vowed to fix it

Blame it on the rain.

Rick Hendrick had been at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, but he was unable to stay after the scheduled start of the Sprint Cup event was pushed back more two hours because of rain. He had a meeting scheduled for the next morning in Atlanta, and had to have his pilots back on the ground in North Carolina by 6:30 that evening.

Drought is over!

At the same venue that produced his last victory, four years and two days removed from that win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke the most talked-about streak in motorsports.

So the car owner headed back home to Charlotte, N.C., where he watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominate the Michigan event to snap a winless streak that had stretched to 143 races over four years -- but not without a few anxious moments in front of the television.

"In one way I'm glad I wasn't there, because nobody got to put the camera on me and see how nervous I was those last 20 laps," Hendrick said Tuesday. "Because I was climbing over chairs, around chairs, about to go nuts -- because it had just been so long. After this year I was just saying ... something's going to happen. Somebody's going to break, somebody's going to blow, something's going to happen."

But nothing happened. There was no late caution to allow the field to catch up to Earnhardt, whose Batman-themed car cruised to a victory that ignited a celebration in the grandstands. Earnhardt had barely pulled into Victory Lane when he was handed a cell phone with a congratulatory call from the boss.

"I just told him, 'I knew we were going to get it done,' " Hendrick said. " 'I'm so proud of you. Enjoy this. The world's been looking at you, and now you can take a deep breath and go have fun.' "

The driver wasn't the only one savoring the moment. Throughout the long winless streak, Hendrick never lost faith in Earnhardt, whom he awarded a contract extension last season. Despite all the battles Hendrick's drivers had through the years with Dale Earnhardt, the car owner has always enjoyed a strong relationship with the Earnhardt family -- the elder Earnhardt once drove a then-Busch car for Hendrick, who also employed Earnhardt Jr.'s grandfather, Robert Gee, as a fabricator.

That connection extended to Earnhardt Jr. and his sister Kelley, who runs the day-to-day operations at JR Motorsports, of which Hendrick is a co-owner. Hendrick tried several different personnel combinations on the No. 88 car, determined to find one that worked. He finally did in Earnhardt's current crew chief, Steve Letarte.

"Dale and I have a real bond. I look at him not like a son, but close to it. I've known him since he was a kid. He and Kelley and I have been tight for a long time. The fact that he had faith in me, and I saw him run good and knew he could drive, knew he had the talent, to come to our organization and then to fail -- I mean, I did not want that on my résumé, because he had faith in me," Hendrick said.

"I was going to do everything in my power to give him what he needed to get the job done because I knew it was inside those walls. What we were missing was a coach and a quarterback. We finally got the best coach and quarterback with him, then things started to happen. So it was like, I just didn't want to give up on something. We had talked, he had faith and confidence in me to come over there. I was not going to quit trying until we hit on something that would work, because I know he can drive a race car."