DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Moments after Jimmie Johnson crossed the finish line at Homestead-Miami Speedway last November to win his second consecutive NASCAR title, his crew erupted in celebration along pit road.
But Johnson's car owner, Rick Hendrick, immediately went searching for another driver -- Jeff Gordon.
Gordon, who also races for Hendrick, had just lost his chance for a fifth championship following a grueling 36-race battle with his teammate. After Gordon climbed from his Chevrolet in front of a throng of reporters, Hendrick walked up and hugged him.
"It's the kind of person Rick is," Gordon said later.
"[Hendrick knew] that it's the guy who finishes second that's feeling the disappointment and probably needs the pat on the back."
Whether it's bucking up a driver's ego or spending millions on the latest technology, Hendrick is pulling all the right levers. A Virginia farm boy who became a multimillionaire car dealer, he stands at the pinnacle of NASCAR stock-car racing.
This year's Hendrick team features a Murderer's Row of drivers: Johnson, who has won the Cup title the last two years and won 10 races last season; Gordon, a four-time champion; Casey Mears of Bakersfield and, starting this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver.
His Hendrick Motorsports team dominated NASCAR's top-tier Sprint Cup Series last year, winning 18 of its 36 races and collecting its seventh Cup championship. And since Hendrick started his team 24 years ago with a single car, his drivers have won 167 Cup races -- second only to Richard Petty's team -- and he's the only owner to have won four consecutive titles (1995 to '98).
Hendrick is off to a fast start again this season.
Earnhardt -- in his inaugural ride in a Hendrick Chevy -- won the Budweiser Shootout exhibition race last weekend, his first victory in 21 months.
The next day, Johnson won the pole position for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.
Only the front row for the race -- Johnson and Michael Waltrip -- was set last Sunday. The remaining drivers will be divided into two 150-mile heat races today to determine the other 41 spots for the 500.
The weekend underlined many observers' opinion that Hendrick Motorsports is in a class by itself in NASCAR -- one that Hendrick rejects out of hand. "I wish I was as confident as some folks are saying we should be," he said.
And Hendrick, 58, knows how quickly life can change for the worse, on the track or at home. Hendrick was stricken with leukemia in 1996, but with the help of a drug called Gleevec he has kept the disease in remission for the last decade. And in 2004, his 24-year-old son Ricky, Hendrick's brother John, two of his nieces and six others were killed when their small plane crashed on the way to a race in Martinsville, Va.
Despite the 2007 championship, Hendrick takes nothing for granted this season. He'll remind anyone who listens that in 2004 and 2005, it was the Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs teams -- not Hendrick -- that won the series title.
"I'm confident that sometime this year there will be stories that will say, 'What happened to Hendrick? They lost their edge, they lost their focus,' " Hendrick said. "I don't think we're going to slip that much, I think the other guys are getting better."
Recruiting Earnhardt -- and inheriting the high expectations of Earnhardt's legion of fans -- only added to Hendrick's burden. "Everybody said you can't keep these three thoroughbreds [Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt] in one stable and make them happy," Hendrick said. "Well, I'm going to do my best."
But just as Hendrick is quick to offer support, he's also a self-described "Monday morning quarterback" for his drivers and teams. More than once after poor races, he has ordered crew chiefs to sit with him on the flight home to find solutions.
Lately, though, that hasn't happened much.
His cars "made everyone look silly" in 2007, said Boris Said of Carlsbad, a part-time Cup driver. "And I don't think they did it by adding one thing that was 10% better than everyone else. They just do everything one-hundredth of a percent better."
And Hendrick has high expectations -- even if you're Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For instance, the Cup teams tested for two days recently at California Speedway. As the second day drew to a close, most teams had packed up and left. But Earnhardt and the other Hendrick drivers kept turning laps in front of empty grandstands.
Even Jeff Gordon kept circling the track as darkness fell.
"This is my 16th year racing for him," Gordon said, "We know that we've got the tools [from Hendrick] to get it done. If we don't get it done, it's our fault."