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A tale of success, setbacks in Hendrick documentary

'Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story' tells how Rick Hendrick built NASCAR's most prosperous team. That accomplishment stands in contrast with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s current struggles.

October 09, 2009|Jim Peltz

At a Hollywood screening of a new feature-length documentary about Rick Hendrick and his NASCAR team, Hendrick and his drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon talked about the film's message.

"Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story," they noted, is a stark account of Hendrick's remarkable success on the track and its devastating setbacks, and of how Hendrick built NASCAR's most prosperous team.

Yet all the money, skill and manpower at Hendrick's disposal has not been enough to make Earnhardt -- NASCAR's most popular driver -- a success since he left his family's team and joined Hendrick in 2008.

Earnhardt, with only one win in his last 127 races and none this year, has "the very best I've got and I still can't show the immediate success," Hendrick said. Trying to get Earnhardt back to Victory Lane is "the hardest part of what I do" these days, he continued.

The movie screening Wednesday night at the Roosevelt Hotel came ahead of Sunday's Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. It's the fourth race in the 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff that determines NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series champion from the 12 drivers who finished atop the point standings. Qualifying for the race is today.

Earnhardt, 22nd in points, came nowhere close to qualifying for the Chase playoff, and his struggle was evident at the Fontana race in February when he finished 39th. He is hoping to improve on that finish in Sunday's race.

What makes Earnhardt's struggle this year more pronounced is that his three teammates -- Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin -- not only made the Chase but are poised to win Hendrick's ninth Cup championship.

Martin leads the Chase by 18 points over second-place Johnson, who is trying to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive title. Gordon, already a four-time champion, is 103 points back in seventh.

"I'm surprised we haven't run better, disappointed and frustrated," said Earnhardt, son of the late Dale Earnhardt, the legendary seven-time Cup champion. But driving for Hendrick, who long had been close to Earnhardt, is "everything I thought it would be," Earnhardt said.

In addition, "Jeff and Jimmie and all the teammates are more open and there's a lot more communication than I anticipated," Earnhardt said. "I'd only worked with a few teammates" in the past "and we weren't really prodded to go in that direction. They [at Hendrick] make an art form out of tutoring each other . . . at the race track."

It's a change that Earnhardt, who turns 35 on Saturday, happily embraced.

"It's great, you're sitting there listening to Jeff and Jimmie and Mark talk about their race cars and how they handled, and what they tried and liked and didn't like. Anybody in the garage would love to get that information."

But even that hasn't been enough to get Earnhardt back into the winner's circle, nor has Hendrick's decision in June to replace Earnhardt's crew chief, with Lance McGrew taking over for Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin.

"It's hard to celebrate victories if you're [team finishes] one, two and maybe four and you've got a guy [Earnhardt] who is 33rd, because those guys work just as hard," Hendrick said. "I feel an obligation to Dale Earnhardt, because he chose our place to come."

Earnhardt has recently shown signs of improvement. Last week at Kansas Speedway, he led 41 laps early in the race. But then he lost a lap when his crew failed to attach one lug nut to a wheel. He finished 36th.

"Right now he can't catch a break," Hendrick said. Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet "was our best car at Loudon [N.H.], and it got wrecked.

"I have to give Junior a ton of credit," Hendrick said. "He's trying, he's working out, he's doing all those things and right now he can't catch a break. I'm like, 'What do I have to do?' "

But Hendrick said they're not giving up. The mandate, he said, is "don't overreact and just keep coming back. You'll get it."


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