Hendrick team driven by excellence, fear

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The 2009 season barely was over when Rick Hendrick pledged on a conference call that his biggest priority was turning around Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup team.

That says all you need to know about why Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR's top organization.

The owner is never completely satisfied. He approaches each season as if he has to prove himself all over again.

It's called fear.

Forget that Jimmie Johnson won an unprecedented fourth straight championship and teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon took the next two spots in the standings. Hendrick couldn't completely enjoy that because Earnhardt failed to win a race and finished a career-worst 25th in points.

It was like a large pimple on his résumé.

So he charged Earnhardt's crew chief Lance McGrew and Martin's Alan Gustafson with reorganizing the shop the two teams share. He moved key people around, not worried that it might throw off the chemistry of the other teams.

He told everybody the goal was to bring Earnhardt to the standards of the rest of the organization and that everybody would pitch in to make it happen.

"Just because you won them back-to-back and you think you found the secret doesn't transfer all the time," Hendrick said. "You have to work extremely hard and be on guard and do a lot of self-evaluation knowing there are other guys working just as hard.

"You just can't be cautious and be afraid to make changes. You're only as good as you were the last race. We're all even starting in Daytona."

This is why Hendrick has won nine of the last 15 Cup titles, why he has set a standard that others work tirelessly to match.

It's the same motivation Johnson has used to dominate the sport like no driver before.

"I use fear to motivate myself," Johnson said. "I'm entering this year saying we're going to get beat, in my mind. That way I work as hard as can, the team works as hard as they can. We don't leave a stone unturned.

"I've always used fear to motivate myself. … It's crazy. I typically start the season with nerves … am I going to remember how to do this?"

There's no reason to think Johnson won't be every bit as good as he has been the past four seasons. All the key personnel remain in place, particularly crew chief Chad Knaus.

Asked the best way to stop Johnson from his drive for five, Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch bluntly said, "Steal Chad Knaus. Lock him up somewhere."

You'll have to lock up a lot more than Knaus. Johnson and HMS have proven in the past that when one person is taken away, there's usually an equally talented person waiting in the wings. Just look at the 2006 Daytona 500: Knaus was suspended for a rules violation and car chief Darian Grubb led the team to victory.

"I know at some point we're going to get beat," Johnson said. "It's going to happen. I'm more aware of that than anyone else. I don't want it to be anytime soon."

Johnson's chief competition may come from his teammates. Martin and Gordon are coming off seasons that may have been championship-caliber if Johnson hadn't one-upped them.

"There is no one more motivated and annoyed by our success than Jeff," Johnson said. "And I mean that in a great way. He's in the same shop. He's driving the same equipment. He wants to be that guy. And he's always been that guy.

I know at some point we're going to get beat. It's going to happen. I'm more aware of that than anyone else. I don't want it to be anytime soon.

-- Jimmie Johnson

"The competition that we have, that spins off from all that, keeps our team on top. Now we have Mark that's part of that whole equation that's a thorn in the side. Hopefully, we made the right changes with the 88 [Earnhardt] so it's four of us frustrating each other each week."

Hendrick has the same philosophy as a football coach who wants as many talented players as possible at each position because he understands competition only makes them better.

Gordon compares his situation to the way it was in 1996 when HMS's Terry Labonte interrupted what could have been a string of four straight titles.

"When they won the championship in '96, that really motivated us," Gordon said. "It wasn't because it annoyed us, it was because I felt like they were an organization that was really capable of winning championships and that we let one slip away from us."

The competition within HMS has gone beyond the track. The drivers are working harder than ever to keep up physically, particularly with workout-aholic Martin on board.

"I don't want to leave anything out there unanswered," said Gordon, who has a stringent program to make him and his ailing back stronger.

It all goes back to fear of failure, not getting comfortable. Organizations that do that get left behind.

What separates HMS is the unselfishness it commits to being the best. Crew chiefs and drivers share information there better than any organization.

"That's one of the greatest things about being in this company, is being able to look right over on somebody's desk and see what they're putting down for answers," Earnhardt said.

That the drivers have the skill to pull it off makes the organization even stronger.

But in the end it comes down to the fear.

"I have to look at what we can do, and we've done it a long time and we know what works for us," Hendrick said. "There's no way for me to silence the critics other than get the job done.

"I just hope you guys aren't asking me in September and October, 'What's wrong? Where did it fall apart?'"

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.