Once considered misguided for building a multicar team, Rick Hendrick's idea has become the model for successful teams in NASCAR's top series. And after a few seasons of struggle, Hendrick Motorsports is again the team to beat.
The head of one of the country's biggest automotive groups, Hendrick has had his share of success outside and inside racing. He's a wealthy man, and his team has won 126 races and five Cup championships since it was begun in 1984 with a one-car entry for Geoff Bodine.
Now he has a four-car team - once thought to be a revolutionary and unworkable idea.
Going into Saturday night's race at Bristol, Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson are 1-2 in the season standings and very much in contention for another series title. Terry Labonte is 23rd, rookie Brian Vickers 24th.
Multicar teams weren't a popular concept when Hendrick came into the sport. Two cars on a team were generally considered one too many.
But Hendrick saw it differently, running cars for Bodine and Tim Richmond in 1986, making it three cars in 1988 with Bodine, Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader, and escalating to four entries in 2002 with Gordon, Johnson, Labonte and Joe Nemechek.
"It didn't work out overnight," said Hendrick, whose team won races but no championships until the '90s. "A lot of people told me, "You can't do that. The drivers and crew chiefs won't share what they know, and it will cause problems.' But I was pretty confident we had the right approach."
When Hendrick offered a ride to then-struggling former series champion Labonte in 1994, he gladly accepted despite the naysayers.
"After I went down there and saw how he did things, I was real impressed," Labonte said. "And now it's the opposite. Everybody says if you don't have a multicar team, you might as well stay home. The multicar team gives you more information, better ideas and the opportunity to do a variety of things."
Things really came together for the team in the '90s.
Gordon, who joined the Hendrick team as a rookie in 1993, gave the owner his first series title in 1995. Labonte beat him for the championship in 1996, but Gordon added two more in 1997 and 1998 - the only time a team has won four straight titles in NASCAR's premier series. Gordon won a fourth crown in 2001.
The overall Hendrick Motorsports acreage and payroll have grown, with more than 400 employees spread across a complex of buildings on 70 acres in suburban Charlotte, N.C.
Still, winning only one title in the past five years hasn't been fulfilling for anybody at Hendrick Motorsports.
The team owner thinks the key to getting back on top, though, is working together as a team and sharing information.
"I think we started rebuilding back in 2000," Hendrick said. "We told everyone at a (preseason) media tour, "We're going to win together, and we're going to lose together, but we're going to be together.' "
Hendrick's concept seems to be working just fine.
Although Johnson is slumping, failing to finish three straight races and losing the points lead to his teammate, and while Gordon has struggled at times, those two will be among the favorites when NASCAR's new 10-race showdown for the Nextel Cup begins next month.
"Everybody talks about it, but our guys really do work together," Hendrick said. "The chemistry on this team's the best I've ever had in 20 years - at least the 18 that I've run multiple cars.