Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick talked with members of the media via teleconference on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010
OPERATOR: Good day, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Hendrick Motorsports teleconference. At this time, all participants are in listen-only mode. During today's teleconference, we will be holding a question-and-answer session. As a reminder, today's conference is being recorded. I would now like to introduce your host for today's call, Jesse Essex of Hendrick Motorsports. Mr. Essex, you may begin.
JESSE ESSEX, MODERATOR: Thank you, Miriam. Good morning everyone. We appreciate members of the media joining us today, and we apologize if we've interrupted anybody's holiday plans. We understand our friends at Sirius NASCAR Radio are carrying the teleconference live so we want to give a special welcome to their listeners. Joining us today is Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. Mr. Hendrick, big announcement yesterday. Can you talk about the thought process behind the decisions and what the response has been like inside the organization?
RICK HENDRICK: Thank you, Jesse. Again, I want to apologize to all the folks here getting ready to leave town for Thanksgiving. This actually started about the Texas race. When we returned from Texas, I called a meeting with all of the crew chiefs, engineers, aero-people, engine shop. We all got together for about a three-hour meeting, and I used one of (Winston) Churchill's quotes. It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required. And we just I think in a nutshell our whole organization after last year and '09 winning the championship and being 1-2-3 in the points, we thought we made some adjustments, and I think we just kind of got complacent, and other teams were just getting stronger and stronger. We were not where we needed to be so we started to really try to really step up our program in every area, and I think that after the championship we decided that these moves would make all four teams better. The excitement inside the organization yesterday afternoon and last night, I think everybody is pumped, excited, and I think we have a kind of new energy level to attack and get ready to go into 2011.
JESSE ESSEX: Thank you, Mr. Hendrick. We will now turn it over to our operator for Q&A from members of the media.
Q: Hi Rick. Congratulations on the championship and making the moves. Is this really all about Dale Earnhardt Jr. (driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet)? Is this a make-or-break season for him to go for a win? For him to go forward with you guys, does he have to win this year?
RICK HENDRICK: Let me first say, this was not a move we made because of Dale or his situation. All those factors weighed into it, but I think when I looked at the personalities, and the strong traits of each team and each crew chief and each engineer and then looked at the drivers and looked at starting to do something to make a change to pair up people that I thought would be better together. It's probably one of the most radical moves I've made in all my years of racing -- to do this many changes at one time. When you know guys, and these crew chiefs and drivers I know well and have worked with -- especially the crew chiefs and engineers for years. I felt like strong personalities and knowing the motors and chassis and the bodies are all the same, then it's got to be the combination of chemistry inside the team. When I started looking at it with Marshall (Carlson, president), Doug (Duchardt, vice president of development), Ken (Howes, vice president of competition) and all the management team and looking at personalities involved and their strong suits. This shook out the way that we presented it yesterday, and the more we talked about it, the more excited we got. The proof will be in the performance next year. But I'm excited about making all four teams better. We need to be better across the board. We're going to get better; we're going to work harder. We are not going to leave any stone unturned, that's the attitude and the fire that's in the whole organization now. It was a move to make all four better.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi Rick. How much input did the drivers and crew chiefs have in this three-hour meeting in coming to your final conclusion?
RICK HENDRICK: The meeting was not about any realignment. It was all about, "Guys, look, just because we've won a lot of races, and we won a ton of races in '09, and we just were off this year." The (No.) 48 was off, and we needed to make a lot of things better. Sometimes when you kind of put a stake in the ground, and you say, 'I've got these back from the crew chief, the drivers, the engine shop,' and we all had one-pagers on what we could do to make it better, and they didn't know what suggested in that meeting that we ship people around. It was how can each individual make our program across the board better, and I do believe in our philosophy as we have one team with four cars. We're not satisfied until all of them are running like they should. So after that meeting, that was after Texas, I started thinking about it with the management team, what would work and there was a lot of people that didn't know what we were going to do until two o'clock yesterday afternoon -- crew chiefs and drivers, and you know we were actually pretty proud that some of the moles with the media didn't get it before we could get it all out there (LAUGHTER). That's the first time I've ever done it and not had to read about it first. It was a tremendous amount of thought went into it, and it was not a from-the-hip situation. When we looked, again, at Steve Letarte (crew chief of the No. 88 Chevrolet)'s personality, and Dale Jr., Alan Gustafson (crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet) and Jeff Gordon (driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet), Lance (McGrew, crew chief of the No. 5 Chevrolet) and Mark (Martin, driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet), and just the left the (No.) 48 alone. It felt good, and I think everybody was excited last night, and I think it sparked a new amount of energy inside our company. Again, we will have to wait and see but it's not one of those things you can vote on. It's one of those things that you have to pull the trigger and go do it.
OPERATOR: Does that answer your question?
Q: Good morning, Rick. You know from your history in the sport that drivers who are successful don't like, once they've hit on something, they don't like to see a lot of change because they like to run it out until it doesn't work anymore. From that perspective, do you see, is there potential of danger ahead with the (No.) 48 and switching up how they've done things. I know Steve Letarte will still be the crew chief, but they'll be operating with a different team in their shop. Does the prospect of what you hope to accomplish with the other three teams outweigh whatever danger you suspect there might be in changing things for the (No.) 48.
RICK HENDRICK: Let me clear up something, Jim, we are not changing the people in the shops. The people in the (Nos.) 24 and 48 shops will remain the same. The only thing that will change is Jeff Gordon's seat will become Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s seat. The cars, the people will all be the same. The same in the other two shops. The only things we changed was the seat, the driver, the sponsor and the number.
Q: Gotcha. So in that sense, you don't suspect there will be any reason why the (No.) 48 should suffer anything from all the changes because hopefully everything stays the same?
RICK HENDRICK: Absolutely not. All the people are the same, and that's one thing we tried to look at with the teams and instead of trying to move a crew chief and get him adapting to a new bunch of guys, it was easier to match the drivers up with the crew chiefs and leave the teams intact.
Q: Jim pretty much asked the question, and you pretty much answered it, Rick. Maybe you can just expand on that. You're basically shifting drivers; you're not shift crew chiefs, right?
RICK HENDRICK: That's right. I'm shifting drivers, and maybe we didn't make that perfectly clear in our release, but we're not shifting teams and putting guys in different buildings. We've got guys that are working together; they are still working together, and we're just changing the drivers and the teams. And you know with a lot of thought, and we believe -- we have a Management by Strengths program -- a test that we give our people in the automotive business and in motorsports. And you look at the strengths and weaknesses of people. You try to find a fit that will match. We started thinking about this, the more we thought about it and you guys, again you might throw this on me mid-year or you might throw it on me six races into the year, but I believe this is a really good move. Jeff Gordon will be moving out of the building into what was the (No.) 88 and the (No.) 5 building, but I think with Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon in the same building, with all of the talent; I think having Dale with Chad (Knaus, crew chief of the No. 48 Chevrolet) and Steve and Jimmie Johnson (driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet) will help Dale. I think everybody is going to win. We've got Lance, who has won a bunch of races. He's won with people like Tony Stewart. He's won a championship with (Brian) Vickers and won (races) with Kyle Busch. Chris Heroy, one of our lead engineers, is one of the best we have on that team with Lance and Mark, and he and Mark worked together and Mark won all the races and finished second in the points in '09. I feel like the chemistry is going to be extremely good there.
Q: Thanks a lot and Happy Thanksgiving.
RICK HENDRICK: Happy Thanksgiving to you.
Q: Hey Rick, I have two questions. Was there any hesitation in moving Jeff out of the shop that really was built around him and Jimmie working together? And the second is why didn't marrying the (Nos.) 5 and 88 work this year?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, let me answer your first question. Jeff is a team player. He has a tremendous amount of respect for Alan (Gustafson, crew chief of the No. 24 Chevrolet). Over the years we have talked about different alignments in different shops. Jeff wants to do whatever is necessary to give him the opportunity to win and win championships. Not that he is unhappy with Steve and the team. If you go back to '06 and you look at Jeff and Jimmie. If you look at top-fives, Jeff had 75 and Jimmie had 81 (since then). The points accumulation has been pretty much face-up other than Jimmie has gotten the championship. I think that the opportunity to try something different and new would again create a spark inside of the company, and I think that Mark and Jeff will be good combination in that building.
And why didn't the (Nos.) 88 and 5 work? We shifted some people around, but the bottom line was and is we started the year off pretty decent. And we built cars and built some of our packages around that wing and when we went to spoiler we were behind, we were all behind. None of the cars ran like they should. The (No.) 5 car suffered probably more than anyone. We had moments when the (No.) 88 looked like it was going to start putting good runs together, and it just for whatever reason didn't happen. Again all of our cars were behind. The (No.) 5 started making good progress as they continued. If he had been in the Chase, he would have finished fourth with the points he accumulated. We started getting a little bit of our momentum back, but we weren't getting it fast enough so I feel like again, when you look at all the personalities and who can carry load, and who is going to be best match-ups. I think we'll see. You never know till you try and staying like you are won't get you that much better so I thought it was time to shake it up a bit.
Q: Quick follow up, you mention you guys got behind. How does that happen at Hendrick Motorsports?
RICK HENDRICK: Well, if you're working in an area and you're building cars and you've got a package that works with the aero-dynamics of the rear wing, and I think we proved a year ago that we had that pretty much figured out. Then when they made the rule change it helped a lot of people and hurt us. You don't want to give up on something that's new that you've got. You try to keep running it and finally you have to back up to what you had maybe six or eight months ago -- then you're way behind. You've got to work hard to catch up, and give credit to the (Joe) Gibbs' organization and the (Richard) Childress organization and now the Roush organization and all of them. Penske's cars are running good early in the year; Ganassi won a bunch of races. All of a sudden the competition, because you worked in an area that was really good for you. The rule change caught us and put us behind because we tried to make it work with the spoiler, and we probably worked too long in that area. You know, we've got good people, and we've got smart people, and we've got hardworking people, but you have to give credit to the other organizations. If you stump your toe or fumble the ball one time, they're all over you, and that's what happened to us. I think we made a lot of progress in the last quarter of the year, half of the year, but not enough. We just have to work a lot harder and a lot smarter, and I'm confident that the guys can and will do it and again, they're really energized so we'll just see.
Q:\n Thank you, Rick.
RICK HENDRICK: Yes ma'am.
Q: Hey Rick, I was wondering if you could expand on how the pairings will work better. Why do you think the personalities of these three pairings will work so well together. What will make them work better together? What specifically will make them thrive?
RICK HENDRICK: Well I'll take Junior first. Steve is probably of all the crew chiefs, more of a people person. He is very smart, but he's got a tremendous personality. He knows how to get close to people. He and Junior have a relationship; I'm not sure if it's from online racing or fantasy football (LAUGHING). I think Junior has lot of respect for Steve, and Steve has a lot of insight on Junior because he's mentioned it to me a couple of times in the debriefs and so forth. I feel like Dale needs a guy he can communicate with, who has a proven track record and a really great team. I think Steve will be able to, because of that chemistry between the two of them, I think that will be very good. That's where I think that one works.
With Alan as an engineer, he is a proven commodity; he's been there and won races with a lot of people. He's finished second in the points. He and Jeff have a relationship. He's very technical, not a lot of conversation but very to the point and matter-of-fact and Jeff I think at this point in his career, and with his track record, that works good for Jeff.
Lance is a technician, and I guess Lance and Chris Heroy, one of our engineers on that team who worked with Mark. Mark Martin is a guy that understands chassis as well as anybody I have ever listened to on the radio. I have actually heard Mark drive a Busch (Nationwide) car when we had the crew chief suspended, and I could have called the race because he watches the race from inside the car. I think the relationship already has been there with Chris. And Mark and Lance have worked together before. I feel like that combination there, Mark will be able to go right back to it. I think he was gaining on it. I want to preface this, the cars weren't as good as they needed to be and we were getting them where they needed to be. I feel like we can take that right back to where it was. I look for all the teams to have a better year next year. I think everybody will be better. Does that answer your question?
Q: Yes it did. The one follow up is you had three guys in the top 13 and then Junior was 21st. After seasons of 25th and 21st in points, what makes you still believe that Dale Earnhardt Jr. can get the job done?
RICK HENDRICK: When your confidence is shaken, you just get to a point where you need something to give you that feeling that you can do it and you've got faith in the guy that you're working with. Sometimes it just gets to a point, the frustration sets in and it just can't work. It doesn't mean that Dale is not a good driver or Lance isn't a good crew chief. It just got to the point where it was not working, and we needed to do something different. I had seen this many, many times. You make a switch and you get a new lease on life and everybody gets excited. We do have the offseason now for Steve and Dale to spent time and kind of understand again. They've been sitting in meetings together so it's not like they're new. They talk to each other at the track and around the track. I feel like with this situation, the type of personality that Dale has and Steve will match up better with Lance and Mark will be a good combination so we'll see.
Q: I have one more if I can ask it now. With Kasey Kahne coming in 2012, we hear a lot of Kenny Francis maybe coming over. Were any of these decisions made looking ahead?
RICK HENDRICK: You gotta look at the future, and you gotta know that Mark's got one more year, but my commitment to Mark and my sponsors and everybody else, we're not going to have a lame duck situation. We're going to go for wins and championships, and Mark can do that. And that team can do that. But when you look at the pairings and Kasey Kahne coming in, then I think that will be a good pairing with Kasey Kahne and Jeff and Jimmie Johnson and Dale will be good there.
Q: Thank you very much.
Q: Hi Rick, happy Thanksgiving, Jesse the same. Rick, when it comes to expectations versus results, have you ever faced a more perplexing challenge than Dale Earnhardt Jr.?
RICK HENDRICK: No, because I have never had as much pressure, and I knew that when I brought him on, the world was watching and we needed to make it right. One of things I want to do before I hang it up is I want to make sure I give him everything he needs to get the job done. I want him to have every tool that's available at our place to get him where he needs to be to win races and run for a championship. I'm committed to that. It's not for lack of effort on our behalf or a lack of effort on his. We had it going the first year. We made a change and we thought we were going to get better. For whatever reason we have not, so we are changing it up. The pressure is there, I accept it. He has it on him, and I think that's a tremendous load for anyone to carry. We just gotta find, sometimes you call it magic. But really it's just trust and chemistry and when you hit on it, you don't know what you did or how you did it but all of a sudden you start running good with the same stuff. It's happened to me many, many times with many, many different drivers. And that's one where we're going to put everything we've got against it and make it work.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Thank you. Rick I talked to Tony Eury Junior on Saturday, and I figured he probably knows Junior better than anybody. He said you have to have somebody who stays calm, keeps him calm and explains everything. They also have to understand his demeanor. There has to be a belief in him. Do you feel that Steve will be the kind of guy that can rebuild the confident that Junior has been lacking the last couple years?
RICK HENDRICK: I really do. Again, when I talked to Steve, his insight into Junior, he picked up on things I hadn't seen. They talked and they're both excited. He has tremendous people skills. And I think that that is the kind of -- he's a leader and he is a no-nonsense guy when it comes to the race, but he has an ability to make people feel comfortable and at the same time get the job done. I think at this point, with the kind of season that Junior has had, that Steve will be a perfect fit for him so we'll see.
Q: As a follow-up with that, with Jeff Gordon throughout the season, he talked about finding the communication he needed with Steve. He said that's probably what was missing the most was the chemistry, getting that back and forth. He had a couple of really rough races at the end of the season. Is it your wish that these guys will have some time together in the offseason to develop communication so when we roll into Speedweeks, things are ticking off from the get-go.
RICK HENDRICK: Absolutely. The problem Jeff Gordon had at the end of the year. It wasn't because of Steve. It was Kurt Busch dumping him at Martinsville (Va.), and then Jeff Burton at Texas or wherever it was. You get a couple of those hits, and then you lose a motor in the last race, and you look at the kind of year he was having up until that point. He had two second-place finishes, 11 top-fives and 16 top-10s, and I think he led 862 laps (going into Martinsville). He didn't win a race, but we had two races that got away from him on the last lap and that's not his style. Jeff and Steve spent a lot of time in the offseason. They came in roaring and had a heck of a start. We had just kind of the same thing. We fell off a little bit mid-year and toward the end we just had all kinds of problems. I feel like this is exactly what they need, so that's why we wanted to do it right now. We don't have a lot of downtime, but there is enough time for them to work some together and get comfortable with each other. Tony Eury Jr. and Steve Letarte are best friends. Steve Letarte is the guy who brought Tony Eury Jr. over to our place for the first tour. So when you look at that relationship that goes all the way back to the Eurys to the Earnhardts, you've got Steve in the middle of that, so I think being close to all those guys is going to do nothing but reinforce his confidence. And Steve's track record proves it, but I think his personality is going to be a really good match. I look for really big things out of those two next year.
Q: Thank you sir. Happy holidays.
RICK HENDRICK: You too.
Q: Rick, going back to Steve, one thing Jeff is always talking about him and how positive he is on the radio and how he builds up his driver's confidence. Do you pick up on that? Is that something Dale needs in the car on race day?
RICK HENDRICK: Oh absolutely. I think Steve has got some broad shoulders, Jeff gets excited on radio, too. Steve works through that, and if you look at Steve's record, he's been in Chase every year he's been a crew chief. He hasn't missed a one. If you look at his stats, they are really close to Jimmie, other than he just doesn't have the Cup. I think he is a seasoned guy. The neat thing about this whole deal is all these guys have worked together; it's not like they're new. Most of them have worked a race together. They sit in debriefs together. They understand the terminology they use to describe the car, they hear it in debrief. There again, I think sometimes change is good because it gives you the opportunity to wipe the slate clean. If you go back to the way things were, everybody's pumped up for the first couple races, but the first time something goes wrong, it's right back to where it used to be. I think it's an opportunity for everyone to do well. I know Jeff Gordon is just as hungry as when he won his four championships. He's a competitor and he wants to win a championship himself. I know it's the same with Alan, Lance and Mark.
I know I'm repeating myself, but the energy I feel inside company now, we all needed something to get excited about and a challenge. And, too, is peer pressure. Nobody wants someone to go in a car and do better than they did so it's going to be one of those things where they try to outdo the other guy. I'm real proud of our guys inside. They work together and if we've got any dirty laundry, we cover it in-house, but at the same time they want to beat each other. Everyone that goes in that place is paid and motivated because if one wins, we all win. It is one team with four cars, but they are competitors, and I think this is going to ratchet up the intensity a lot inside the company.
Q: Briefly, just to clarify. Did Jeff give the green light to Alan sometime before yesterday afternoon?
RICK HENDRICK: Yes.
Q: Thank you sir.
Q: Rick, I know there's a lot of fans out there have become fans themselves of Ron Malec (car chief, No. 48 Chevrolet). It was a big rumor of whether he would become a crew chief. Was he a consideration in this deal at all to move up to the crew chief level? What do you see in his future?
RICK HENDRICK: Ron is, as everybody knows, a super-talented guy. And Ron and I share a love for drag racing so we do a little bit of that when we have time. Ron is happy and content where he is today and for the foreseeable future. He knows that when he wants to take a look at something else, I'm there. We know his capability, but he's helping write history with winning five of these things in a row. And they were talking about going for six Sunday night, as fired up as they've ever been. And Ron is a huge, huge contributor to the entire organization, and he right now is comfortable and happy where he is. I'm sure that one day he will play another role inside our company.
Q: Happy Thanksgiving.
RICK HENDRICK: Happy Thanksgiving to you.
Q: Question about the pit crews. You've addressed the subject of the shop personnel. Have you made any decisions in terms of who will be with which teams and if there are going to be any changes?
RICK HENDRICK: Some significant changes need to be made for sure. We have put a lot of emphasis into the pit crews, and we have a developmental program that we've been working on. The short answer to your question is our guys are full speed ahead looking at what we need to do and where we need to be coming out of gate next year. It's a work-in-progress. We don't know. As far as teams go, the guys on those teams will stay where they are; there won't be any swapping around as of right now. I tell you that now and then we change our mind when we get to Daytona (Fla.), but for right now we're trying to look at each team individually and go back and improve what we had. There will be some different people in there that you didn't see this year when we show up in Daytona, but how that's going to shake out between now and then, I'm not sure.
REID SPENCER: As a follow up, Ray Evernham was saying the other day he is looking for a job basically. Not a full-time thing, but perhaps a consulting thing. Is there a place for him at Hendrick Motorsports?
RICK HENDRICK: Ray and I are very close. He's a very smart guy, and we had talked over the last year about things that I'm doing that he likes. He doesn't want a full-time job, but I can see Ray being involved with us in a lot of areas, from the automobile side, the high performance parts division we have now. We're building performance cars, and he likes that. So there's just an array of things that we do in our companies that Ray has been in and around for years, so I'm sure that Ray and I will be doing something together, and hopefully it will be fun.
Q: Thanks Rick, and Happy Holidays.
RICK HENDRICK: You too.
Q: Hi Rick, I understand what you are saying about Mark Martin and Lance and that you feel like it's a good pairing. But given how much admiration and love, really, that Mark had for Alan; is he sort of taking one for the team here? It seems like in some ways he's getting the short end of the stick.
RICK HENDRICK: Well, you know, I talked with Mark and I asked Mark for his help. Mark's got one more year in our organization, and we have to look down the road. I have made a commitment to Mark Martin, and I think when you talk to him, he will tell you that the makeup of what he is going to have next year is mostly what he had in '09 -- a lot of it. We are going to do whatever it takes with people, with equipment, whatever it takes for Mark Martin to win races and have the opportunity to go for the championship again. I have total confidence in Lance and Chris, and I feel like with Mark, his technical expertise as well as those other two guys will be a match that I think will surprise a lot of people. Mark's not getting the short end of the stick. He is going to get all the stick he wants, and that comes from me.
Q: Thank you.
OPERATOR: That does conclude our Q&A session. Speaker, you may proceed.
JESSE ESSEX: Thank you, Miriam. I apologize to anyone who didn't get to ask a question this morning; quite a bit of interest in this. We will post a transcript and audio of the teleconference to our media site later in the day for anybody who needs it. On behalf of Mr. Hendrick, we appreciate everybody taking the time to join with us this morning, and we hope everybody has a safe, happy and healthy Thanksgiving.
RICK HENDRICK: Thanks, folks.
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