The big dogs are ready to roll.
Among them, NASCAR team owners Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs have won 18 of the 24 Sprint Cup championships contested since 1986. On Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, one of the three will add to that number and make it 19 of the last 25.
Hendrick currently leads with nine titles, to six for Childress and three for Gibbs, but it is Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, who leads Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson by 15 points and Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick by 46 with only Sunday’s Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway left on the schedule.
And while all three championship-contending team owners are fierce competitors and hungry to win on Sunday, it’s safe to also say each owner has a deep respect for what the other two have accomplished in the sport.
“I did look at Richard's organization extremely hard because we led a lot of laps and we won a lot of races, but we'd get down to the end of the year and Richard won the championships,” said Hendrick, who launched his Sprint Cup team in 1984, but didn’t win his first championship until 1995. “I think Richard showed us how you have to prepare and run for a championship. You've got to be there and you've got to race every race and every lap, and you've got to finish.”
And as fellow Chevrolet team owners, Hendrick and Childress have had occasions to collaborate, even while racing each other hard.
“We've worked together many times on projects,” Hendrick said of Childress. “He's been a great friend and a great competitor just like Joe. But it's amazing how we do learn from each other, and I learned an awful lot from Richard early on.”
Gibbs began his Sprint Cup team during the 1992 season, the latest of either of three of this year’s title hopefuls to launch his own team. He said Hendrick was a tremendous help in getting started, at one point loaning out the former general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmy Johnson — not to be confused with Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson — to assist Gibbs in getting going.
“I think we only looked over with respect at Richard and everything that he had done. I was afraid to even talk to (Dale) Earnhardt and Richard,” Gibbs said. “But Rick was nice enough ... to assign Jimmy Johnson. I don't think we would have been able to do what we did as a startup team and get to where we are if Rick hadn't been willing to do that. So I think in a lot of ways you look up to people in the sport.”
Childress, like his title rivals, knows he’s in a battle with two equally strong teams.
“You've got three top organizations running for this championship, and that's what the Chase was all built around is to have this,” Childress said. “This is a storybook Chase right here, and I think it's going to go down to the wire because you have three capable drivers, you have three capable organizations, and it's going to be fun. I'm as excited about this championship effort — I wish we were 46 ahead or whatever we're behind. I wish we were ahead that much. But we'll take it just being able to have a mathematical chance of winning it.”
And in terms of nerves, the owners said they’re feeling it more than their drivers or crew chiefs.
“Our guys are kind of — they're kind of relaxed,” said Gibbs. “But I think they'll probably get uptight here the closer we get to the weekend. But I think over here I'd rate myself as definitely the most nervous.”
“When we walk into the track is when I'm going to get knotted up,” added Hendrick. “And they get ready to start the race, so many things are happening around you, and you're trying to keep up with it. I'm trying to wait until Sunday when I walk in out there to get kind of in a bind.”
As for Childress, his team has the least to lose and is therefore the loosest of the three at the moment.
“I think we probably got it the easiest on our end because the worst we're going to finish in the points is third, and we're the team that's chasing, and we're just going to go down there and have fun,” said Childress, who is looking for his first championship since 1994. “If it gets down to the last 10 laps and there's five points difference or 10 points difference and we've got a solid chance of winning it, leading it or are right there, yeah, I think I'll probably be like Joe. I may end up having to jump off the truck or something.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.