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Hendrick vows rebound from worst season in team history

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Rick Hendrick worked too hard building NASCAR’s top organization to tolerate mediocrity. If his teams had simply been average last season he might not rate it as one of the worst in team history.

The Hendrick cars were pretty bad —seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson failed to win for the first time in his Cup career — and it took 22 races for the organization to get its first victory. The final tally showed just three Chase Elliott victories and the organization with 12 Cup titles was locked out of the championship-deciding finale for the second consecutive year.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Hendrick guaranteed this year will be much improved.

“Last year sucked. I ain’t gonna do that no more,” Hendrick said. “I’m too competitive to do that and our organization is too good to be doing that.”

The season was not entirely surprising considering the upheaval to both the driver lineup and the behind-the-scenes operations.  The roster was stacked just three years ago with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Johnson but looks dramatically different as Hendrick begins its 36th season in the Cup Series.

Gordon retired after the 2015 season, Earnhardt was sidelined most of 2016 because of concussion-related ailments and he retired the next year. Kahne was released for underperforming and Hendrick suddenly had two high-profile rides to fill. Elliott had already replaced Gordon, and the newest vacancies were filled by William Byron, a rookie last season, and Alex Bowman, who had bounced around looking for a competitive ride until he filled in for Earnhardt in 2016.

Bowman is 26, Elliott is 23 and Byron celebrated his 21st birthday during the offseason. Johnson is entering his 18th fulltime Cup season and turns 44 this September.

Johnson was surrounded by inexperienced newcomers at the same time Chevrolet made a body change to its Cup entrant and switched to the Camaro. Although Bowman won the Daytona 500 pole in the Camaro’s debut, and Chevy driver Austin Dillon won the race, that was the lone highlight for most of the season. Chevy didn’t win again until Elliott’s first career victory in August and Camaro drivers totaled just four victories. Ford won 19 races in its outgoing Fusion and Toyota scored 13 wins in its Camry.

Hendrick completed a massive restructuring before the 2018 season and its resources were stretched thin as all four teams were moved into one shop for the first time. The teams had previously been split in pairs, and the consolidation put everyone in the same building with the crew chiefs working as a quartet.

So much change at one time had an impact on performance.

“We really looked like we were out to lunch most of the year,” Hendrick said. “Until Chase won, it didn’t even look like we were in the same ballpark. But we started to close the big gap toward the end of the year and now we’ve turned the page.”

Hendrick had built his team from nothing and weathered the tightest of financial situations. All-Star Racing barely made it through the first two months of its inaugural 1984 season.

Hendrick had a 5,000-square-foot shop with eight employees and a legendary crew chief in Harry Hyde. But he didn’t have a driver, a sponsor or solid prospects. A deal with Richard Petty to run the Daytona 500 didn’t materialize and the seat was offered to Tim Richmond. Hendrick pulled the offer when Geoff Bodine stopped in the shop one day and offered to wait in the lobby until Richmond made his decision.

Hendrick figured he had five races to find the sponsorship needed to stay in business and Hyde later talked him into stretching it another three weeks. He was just about out of money when Hendrick allowed Northwestern Security Life to put its logos on Bodine’s car for free at Martinsville Speedway, the eighth race of the season and probably the last unless Hendrick stumbled upon serious financial intervention.

That race at Martinsville was the moment that saved what is now Hendrick Motorsports. Bodine pulled off a near-miracle and won the race, and the overjoyed Northwestern executives agreed to fund the rest of the season.

That 1984 season was always the one Hendrick considered his most difficult in NASCAR.

Then came 2018 and uncharacteristic struggles across the board.

“It was the toughest year I had in racing that I can remember,” Hendrick said. “There were dark days before that, the year we almost closed, but after you’ve won as much as we have, it was rough to go through. I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t know it was going to be that tough. The reorganization, bringing on two young drivers and we were just behind when we started the season. And when you are that far off, nobody else is waiting for you to catch up.”

The worst is behind the organization, Hendrick said, and he’s encouraged about this season.

He split Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus at the end of the year and has tasked Knaus with building another team around Byron the same way he did when he launched Johnson’s team in 2002. A new racing package for this season should benefit both Bowman and Byron because neither had much experience under the old rules.

Hendrick was not as visible last season as years past, perhaps because fishing in Florida was more enjoyable than watching his teams struggle. It led to speculation that Gordon, who owns a stake in Hendrick is poised to take over, a move the boss doesn’t see happening soon.

“I don’t think Jeff will ever want to do the day to day, every single day,” Hendrick said. “But I would hope one day that if he wants to, when I am done, and I don’t know when that day will come for me because I’ve still got a lot I want to do. But he has input, we talk about drivers and plans. But I am 69, I feel good, I still love this, I grew up racing and it was all I knew. This was all I always cared about and the dream about starting by building a car in a bathroom, to riding in here today and looking at this place (Hendrick Motorsports), I get excited like a kid.

“Last year fires me up and is a reminder ‘This is not who we are and how we run and we need to get after it right now.’”

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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