The main, and he claims only, reason Rick Hendrick has a history of resistance toward his drivers competing in any race car outside of the NASCAR Cup Series is because of safety concerns. He didn’t, and really still doesn’t, want them to risk getting hurt.
Then he signed Kyle Larson, an avid dirt racer, and Larson became Hendrick Motorsports’ winningest driver in the Cup ranks this season with a series-best four points-paying victories through 21 events.
“I’ve changed my mind on the whole process,” Hendrick said. “I think driving big horsepower cars out of control has helped him a tremendous amount in the Cup racing. His car control is steel. So, you’ve got to be willing to change. I guess these guys have worked me over enough. I’ve done it.”
Hendrick loosened the reins.
Larson hits the dirt as he pleases, though he agreed to dial back when the NASCAR Playoffs begin. Reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is starting to dabble in multiple leagues, plural. Teammates Alex Bowman (sprint car) and William Byron (iRacing, albeit simulation) are also involved in different forms of racing.
The argument is it helps drivers hone their craft. It also — a newer realization — gives sponsors further exposure.
On Wednesday, Larson not only signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports through 2023, but Hendrick Automotive Group also announced it’ll back Larson for the two full years, including his non-NASCAR racing schedule.
“When you look at a driver and their brand, you often think of them and the car that they drove and the sponsor that was on it,” Larson said. “Jeff Gordon and DuPont. Jimmie (Johnson) and Lowe’s. I hope it’s me with Hendrick Cars on my car for my whole career.”
At 28 years old, Larson has time to build that type of driver-sponsor relationship. Gordon retired from full-time racing at 44. Johnson left NASCAR at 45.
Larson is in just his first full-time season with Hendrick Motorsports, too. He has the four regular-season wins, which already matches his career-high mark with 15 races remaining in 2021, and an additional exhibition victory from the All-Star Race. Larson then boasts 10 wins beyond NASCAR this year, giving him 56 dirt triumphs since January 2020.
“For us, it’s from a marketing perspective, it’s a brand extension,” said Brian Johnson, Hendrick Automotive Group’s vice president of marketing. “Kyle talked about brands being associated with drivers throughout history. We want to have the same effect with him. So, whenever he’s in a late model, a sprint car, whatever — whatever he’s in — we want that HendrickCars.com brand associated with him because it touches a different audience.”
Different audiences lead to a bigger overall audience.
The proof is in the pudding there. HendrickCars.com has an existing presence in the NHRA drag-racing world as the primary sponsor for Greg Anderson, who’s one win away from holding the all-time Pro Stock record.
“I couldn’t believe when I went over to the drag race how many T-shirts and Hendrick Cars stuff was there,” Hendrick said. “I think we’re going to look at every opportunity there is.”
It has been a rather eye-opening experience. Because the benefits of racing go even beyond the competition and publicity bonuses. Hendrick has had grassroots fans apply to be mechanics for his Cup Series teams, and he is able to tell them about the opportunities at the dealerships instead.
There are positives to a driver racing in non-NASCAR fields, though the threat of injury impacting their NASCAR careers does remain.
“I want to say I don’t encourage it,” Hendrick said. “But I’m all for it if it’s something they want to do and they feel really motivated to do it.”