Life is good for Rick Hendrick right now.
Every since Jimmie Johnson won the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway last month, Hendrick Motorsports has been on fire.
Johnson’s victory gave Hendrick his long-awaited 200th NASCAR Sprint Cup race win as a team owner and broke an uncharacteristic 16-race winless streak for the team. Since then, the Hendrick armada has been close to unstoppable:
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Sprint Showdown.
• Johnson won the Sprint All-Star Race.
• Kasey Kahne captured the Coca-Cola 600.
• Johnson won again at Dover.
And the big news, of course, occurred at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, when Earnhardt broke a 143-race winless streak to score a dominating victory in the Quicken Loans 400.
The Earnhardt triumph was huge for Hendrick on a number of fronts. Hendrick has known Earnhardt since he was a little boy and the fact that both men experienced tragedy in their lives was a bond that brought them together. And, obviously, an Earnhardt victory is good for business.
But more than that, a newer, more confident Earnhardt has emerged. The driver is enjoying working with crew chief Steve Letarte, and the results show it: Earnhardt has 12 top-10 finishes in 15 races, most of any driver this season, and he’s just four points behind Matt Kenseth for the top spot in the Sprint Cup points standings.
Hendrick said he’s seen the change.
“I think when he said he was the best driver in our camp, he had not said anything close to that before,” said Hendrick. “He, as a matter of fact, would say, ‘Man, Jimmie is unbelievable, Jeff (Gordon) is unbelievable, Kasey is really fast.’ But when he came out and said, ‘I'm getting the job done, I'm the A horse in the stable right now,’ and felt good about saying that, that just showed me that he was at max confidence, and that's what he needed. That's what he needs.”
And for Earnhardt, confidence makes all the difference.
“When he gets that little stride, that little smile, that kind of notch in his step, he's starting having fun with it, and he starts playing with the guys on the radio when he's leading the race, that kind of reminds me of his dad,” said Hendrick. “I love to see that."
“I think that was a telltale sign to maybe the world where he stood on where his opinion was,” added Letarte of Earnhardt’s proclamation. “That's definitely a question that I think anyone in a company wants to shy away from because it's a hard question to answer. Little things like that mean a lot to the race team because you have to think that. If you don't think that on Sunday morning, then this sport's really, really tough. If you don't believe that you can go out and be the best, then it's really hard to try to do that.”
And after a few relatively fallow seasons, Earnhardt, Letarte, Hendrick and the rest of the No. 88 team believe they are at the top of their game and are the team to beat. Time will tell if they can parlay that into a championship this season.
“When his confidence is switched on, I mean, he's convinced and he knows he's got the best in the garage. He believes that,” Hendrick said of Earnhardt. “He believes he's got the best crew chief and the best team. He believes this is what he's needed.
“Chemistry is so important. Sometimes you never hit the right combination. But, man, I look back and I think we're very fortunate. Didn't have any idea it was going to be this good. But I think that the chemistry between these two guys, and I've been doing this for 30 years, is as good as or better than any I've ever seen.”
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.