At Hendrick Motorsports, excellence is literally written on the walls -- or one of them, at least. One wall in the organization's team center is made of etched-glass blocks that contain the date and location of each of the company's 199 race victories in NASCAR's premier division. Overhead, banners hanging from the ceiling commemorate all of the team's championships, among them 10 in the Cup Series. It all combines to send a subtle but unmistakable message, that success here is measured only by being the very best. At Hendrick, nobody gets a banner or a glass block for a good points day.
As understood as all that is, though, it's still somewhat jarring to hear the man in charge stand up and say it. But that's just what Rick Hendrick did Wednesday when NASCAR's preseason media tour stopped at his sprawling campus, and his reaction to a relative down year in 2011 was to make a simple pronouncement -- that a title in 2012 isn't just hoped for, but absolutely expected. It felt as if the boss had already placed an order for another banner, or cleared space in a trophy case for a sterling silver cup.
"I usually hedge a little bit, but this year I'm not," Hendrick said. "I think I'm going to be real disappointed if we don't have all four cars in the Chase, and I'm going to be real disappointed if we don't win the championship."
That's a strong statement even for a stop on the media tour, where the swell of optimism reaches its high-water mark, and every organization -- big or small, fully-sponsored or under-funded -- believes it has a chance. And it comes on the heels of a somewhat uneven 2011 campaign for Hendrick, one in which Jimmie Johnson had his championship streak snapped at five, Dale Earnhardt Jr. saw his winless skid continue, Mark Martin went winless in his final full-time season, and Jeff Gordon won three times but fell apart in the Chase. There were no Hendrick drivers in the top five in final points for the first time since 2000, when the team was just a three-car outfit.
And the response to that is -- championship or bust? It certainly is at Hendrick, the most successful organization in modern NASCAR history, where the reaction to a down season is to raise the bar.
"I think we're all culturally trained to be successful, and when we're not successful, we know we have to do something to react," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for Johnson's No. 48 car. "We've made some adjustments to the team, we've all made some adjustments as a company to go out there and do what we're supposed to do. It's not like there's a sounding bell that's rallying the troops. There's not a shotgun going off. There's nothing like a shock awareness. We just all know that we need to do better, and it's part of what we do. We're supposed to win races."
The interesting thing is, this mandate of a championship in 2012 doesn't necessarily stem from shortcomings in the previous year. Oh, it's clear that efforts at Hendrick have been renewed -- preseason testing schedules are ramped up, Hendrick's mechanics and engineers have picked apart every rule change, and the owner says his organization is more prepared at this point in the year than he's ever seen before. Johnson feels rejuvenated having shed his championship obligations, and even the ultra-intense, workaholic Knaus took his first vacation in about a decade. No question, this is a team bucking in the starting gate, ready to prove that 2011 was an aberration.
But Hendrick's championship expectations for this year stem not from the past, but from potential. He looks across his lineup and likes what he sees -- Johnson and Knaus angry, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson clicking, Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte coming off a Chase berth, newcomer Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis making the move after a strong finish to last year. As far as the owner is concerned, there are no weaknesses, and no excuses should somebody else hoist the Sprint Cup in South Florida this November.
"Looking at last year, I didn't know how Dale and Steve were going to work. I didn't know how Jeff and Alan were going to work. I thought they would be good, and they were much better than I anticipated," Hendrick said. "I had Mark, knowing it was his last year. I had Kasey waiting to come. I didn't know if we were going to get Kenny, and then I get Kenny and their engineer and Kasey, and they are here and they're fitting in like they've been here forever. Then all of the sudden, I know -- I've got a better 88 team. I've got a better 24 team. I've got a pissed-off 48 team, and I've got a something-to-prove 5 team with a guy who had one of the best Chases of anybody. So that gives me the confidence that, if we don't blow it up, we're going to be good."
As usual at Hendrick, so much of that centers on the No. 48 team, which over the course of five consecutive championship campaigns has emerged as the organization's flagship program. That reign ended last year, when the cars often just weren't fast enough, Johnson didn't win enough to intimidate the opposition, and he was reduced to a bystander as Tony Stewart outdueled Carl Edwards for the title.
"I'm as hungry as I've ever been. I know that this organization is. I know that Chad is and the 48 team [is]," Johnson said. "What Rick [said], and his disappointment if all four cars aren't in the championship, and the same for the champion not being one of these four cars, I share that. I certainly know what my team is capable of. I know what I'm capable of. And I have lofty goals for myself this year, and I hope I can execute those things."
Knaus reached the same place via a different route -- one that took him to South Africa, his first vacation in years, and a getaway that led him to miss Preseason Thunder testing at Daytona. He was still in regular contact with car chief Ron Malec and engineer Greg Ives at the race track, examining lap data and texting directions to his team on the other side of the world and in the middle of the night. He also visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was once imprisoned, got an up-close look at wild animals on safari, and took almost 2,000 photos.
"I'm not going to say taking a trip reenergized me, and I found some golden orb down there that made it all worthwhile," Knaus said. "That's not how it worked. But I will tell you that being able to have fun a little bit helps. It helps the mind. I'm not super-familiar with that aspect of life, clearly. But I enjoyed it. Came back, and I'm ready to go. I feel great. I'm ready. I think it's going to be a great season for us."
Hendrick is glad his sometimes high-strung crew chief got away. "We told Chad a couple of times, you can't be on the chip all the time. If you run as hard as you can run and never take a breath, you're going to burn out," he said. "One day you'll just walk out and say, 'I'm done.' You need to get out and enjoy yourself, feel refreshed and come back. I see, instead of him being so wound up he's off the floor, he's walking through the shop telling me I need to go to South Africa and see the animals."
Assuredly, the old Chad will be back soon enough. Hendrick hopes this season to also see a little more of the old Hendrick Motorsports, the one that wins races and titles in bunches, and adds more glass cubes to the wall and more banners to the ceiling. "We've got a lot of the questions answered," said the man with 199 career victories in NASCAR's premier division.
Well, all but one. "I've been hauling around these '200 win' hats for six months," he joked. Given the potential and seeming renewed purpose within his organization, you have to think that pretty soon, he'll be handing them out.