DARLINGTON, S.C. -- The town of Bennettsville, S.C., is a place known for its soil. It was so fertile, legend once held, that it was sold not by the acre, but by the pound. Victorian and Greek revival homes still stand as testament to the era when the place got rich off king cotton, and gins gave rise to millionaires. That time has long passed now, but soybean, corn and cotton are still cultivated in and around the town roughly 30 miles from Darlington Raceway, and Bennettsville still makes much of its living from the earth.
So perhaps there was no better place for an empire to take root. The former manger of an import division at a dealership in Raleigh, N.C., Rick Hendrick was all of 27 when he moved to Bennettsville to take over his first store, a failing General Motors franchise housed in a tiny facility that would occasionally get buzzed by crop dusters working an adjacent cotton field. In less than two years he went from selling just six cars a month to over 100, and from one of GM's smallest outlets he was promoted to one of its largest -- City Chevrolet in Charlotte, which also supplied parts to manufacturer-affiliated NASCAR teams.
Success is often a product of opportunity and circumstance, and there is no question Hendrick took advantage of both. Although his father had fostered his son's interest in race cars and Hendrick owned a dragster that he later sold to raise cash to buy the Bennettsville dealership, he didn't start out with the goal of becoming a NASCAR team owner, much less the most successful one of the sport's modern era. No, it all happened because Hendrick found himself in the right place at the right time, made the right connections like car owner Raymond Beadle and sports-marketing guru Max Muhleman, and was willing to put up the cash to back an outfit called All-Star Racing that debuted in 1984.
And behold, the results. What started with 18 employees at a dealership so small it didn't even have a showroom has ballooned into an automotive kingdom, the centerpiece of which is literally a shining motorsports complex on a hill. All-Star Racing became Hendrick Motorsports, which claimed 10 championships (and counting) in NASCAR's premier division, and Saturday night claimed its 200th race victory courtesy of Jimmie Johnson. Inside one building on the Hendrick campus is an entire wall made of etched glass cubes, each of them inscribed with the track, winning car number, and date of every individual victory, all of them featuring that slanted H logo which in today's NASCAR has become as recognizable as the sanctioning body's color bar.
So it seemed appropriate Saturday night that the landmark would come at Darlington, a track so close to the town where it all began. Hendrick thought the milestone would occur at Martinsville Speedway, where three of his cars were in the running in the final laps at a place that holds great personal significance to the car owner, because of the 2004 airplane crash that occurred near there and claimed the lives of 10 people, including his son and brother. But a wreck got in the way, and instead the victory arrived at Darlington, and the proximity to Hendrick's starting point was almost poetic.
"When I think about Darlington and how special this place is ... in 1976 I had a little Chevy dealership over here in Bennettsville," Hendrick said early Sunday morning. "My wife and I, about a third of the way through the race, drove into the track, pulled up behind the stands, didn't buy a ticket, parked the car and walked up into the stands and watched the race. I don't know how we did that. And to think, it's been a lot of years since then."
And 200 victories are a lot of wins. It's an impressive summation of the man's life work, and yet another example of how Hendrick sets the standard in NASCAR ownership. Although there have been times when other organizations have been better -- Joe Gibbs Racing (early 2000s) and Roush Racing (mid-2000s) each claimed the title of best team in NASCAR for brief periods -- Hendrick isn't kept down for very long. Its valleys aren't as deep or as sharp as those experiences by other organizations, and its peaks are significantly more pronounced. The 2010 season was enough of a struggle to precipitate major personnel shakeups in the offseason, and yet behind Jimmie Johnson the team still added yet another title. But because only one team won races, at Hendrick it qualified as a down year.
His influence is everywhere, it seems. When Kurt Busch needed clarity on where to go after his exile from Penske Racing, Rick Hendrick played a part. Tony Stewart won last year's Sprint Cup title for a Stewart-Haas organization that was given a huge boost by Hendrick cars and engines. After Stewart won at Texas last fall to take another bold step toward his third championship, he talked to Hendrick -- who was recovering from the crash-landing of an airplane in Key West -- on the telephone in Victory Lane. Hendrick didn't win the championship in 2011, but a Hendrick-made engine carried Stewart to the title, so the team's director of engine development, Jeff Andrews, sat at the head table during the postseason banquet for a sixth consecutive year.
Although a long winless streak (by Hendrick standards) preceded victory No. 200, and Jeff Gordon is mired in the worst slump of his illustrious career, his cars were still so good they are still in the mix every week. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne are in the midst of revivals, even if they haven't won. Johnson lurks in the points. Gordon is fast and in contention almost every race, despite the weekly misfortune that seems to follow him around. In every case, the potential is still there. At Hendrick, it's always there.
Why does Hendrick succeed? There are likely more reasons than there are events on the Sprint Cup schedule, and so much of it begins with relationships and loyalty. There are many people at Hendrick who have been there a very long time, some since the beginning, and wouldn't think about working anywhere else. Hendrick has proven adept at not just finding driving talent, but locking it down. The relationships he built even outside his own organization were evident in his associations with drivers like Dale Earnhardt -- who once won a race in the then-Busch Series in a Hendrick car -- Mark Martin, and Earnhardt Jr., the latter of whom felt close enough with Hendrick to drive for him after he separated from his late father's team.
No question, Hendrick can shake hands, cultivate relationships, and close deals with the best of them -- just ask the folks as Lowe's, who bought completely into the then-unknown Johnson because Hendrick and Gordon convinced the sponsor he could win. But Hendrick has also fostered a culture of reliability and quality control that's as buttoned-down as the white dress shirts his employees often wear. Hendrick Motorsports seems less a race shop than a laboratory built on scientific exactitude. Engines are put through two 800-mile tests on Hendrick's in-house dynamometer before they're put under the hood. After races, components are measured, eyeballed for cracks, put through a Magnaflux machine to check for flaws. In 2006, a part called a wire lock failed inside Gordon's car at Michigan, and the engine failed as a result. Since then, every wire lock has been inspected by hand.
Other teams have similar procedures in place, of course, but not every team has Hendrick's track record to show for them. Gordon's engine failure in this year's Daytona 500 was notable precisely because that kind of thing happens so infrequently to Hendrick equipment. According to Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, quality control at Hendrick is at such a level that everyone feels the pressure. No one wants to be the person who lets something slip through.
That attention to detail is evident every weekend, in parts that usually last, in drivers that usually contend for championships. Johnson, an unheralded former off-road racer with a middling Nationwide career before he moved to the Sprint Cup level in Hendrick equipment, may one day prove the greatest find in NASCAR history. But it's not just Johnson -- only twice in the Chase era has Hendrick gone to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway without a dog in the hunt, and its unprecedented 1-2-3 finish with Johnson, Martin, and Gordon in 2009 remains an organizational high-water mark. From its driver stable to its sponsor lineup to its quality control procedures, Hendrick simply presents a depth other teams have struggled to match.
It won't always be like this, of course. Hendrick brought Kahne on board this season because its driver lineup was beginning to get a little gray in the temples. As recent events at Kansas and Talladega showed, Hendrick parts do occasionally break. NASCAR is cyclical, and no team can stay on top forever, and not even Hendrick is immune to the ebbs and flows of the sport. Gordon is in the autumn of his career, Johnson's title streak has been snapped, and last year no Hendrick driver finished in the top five in final points. But the name on the front of those buttoned-down shirts will remain the same, as will the processes set in motion inside those glass and steel race shops, all of them opening the possibility that one day another Gordon or another Johnson will be unearthed.
More than any championship or race win, Hendrick's greatest achievement is an organization that seems able to sustain itself, even in an era of contraction and economic duress. No wonder the soil in Bennettsville was once believed to be so valuable. It's amazing what can spring out of it.