AVONDALE, AZ — Rick Hendrick has an eye for talent. In 1992, he discovered and signed a young USAC star that didn’t have enough money for an Indy Car seat. This young brazen kid was a Ford development driver, but Hendrick swooped in and took him Cup racing. He saw what he did in a Busch race in Atlanta and signed him 48 hours later.
Gordon, made his first career Cup start on Nov. 15, 1992. That was Richard Petty’s final NASCAR start. The “kid” would pan out just fine. Four championships and 93 race wins later, Gordon goes down as one of the best to ever race a stock car.
In 2000, Hendrick found another budding young star. He wasn’t necessarily tearing up the track in the Busch Series, but Hendrick and Gordon figured this guy deserved a chance. For the 2002 season, in came a guy named Jimmie Johnson.
Seven championships and 83 wins later, Johnson, like Gordon, will go down as one of the all-time greats.
Last year in this very race, Johnson, made his final Cup start at the Phoenix Raceway. It was a day that another driver that Hendrick found won his first career championship. That kid?
A year ago, Elliott, became the third youngest NASCAR champion ever at the age of 24. But, you had to rewind to a decade ago for this relationship to take shape. Hendrick, got a tip from a friend, a former NASCAR owner, about this second generation driver tearing up dirt tracks around the Southeast.
After witnessing it, Hendrick decided to call this kid (Elliott) and his dad (Bill Elliott) over to North Carolina to chat. He signed that kid. Hendrick, gave Elliott a contract at 14 years old. Now, that 14 year old is 24 and a NASCAR champion.
“I won’t name any names at our company, but I think a lot of people thought I was nuts,” Hendrick said last year of the Elliott signing. “No, you see a kid like that… Actually James Finch told me, Have you seen Chase Elliott drive?And I said, No. He said, Man, he’s whipping all these guys on dirt.
“So I started getting some videos, and then I called Bill, and they came down and we talked.
“I just watched him in those late models and then actually saw one of the races he was racing Kyle Busch. Just the way Bill raised him and what a polished young guy he was and had a lot of talent, I thought, man, he’s just 14 years old so sure want to take a chance if we can.
“You’ve got to find a guy like that early. And again, I think it was a combination of skill, pedigree and just a sharp young man.”
Elliott, has the pedigree to be a multi time champion now but he gave way to this year’s title to his new teammate.
Rick Hendrick didn’t have to sign Larson. He could have went in any other direction. With Johnson retiring, that seat was coveted. Plus, his team was back out of a longer than normal rebuild for them and on the cusp of being that storied organization again.
Everyone wanted this ride. Instead, Hendrick gave Larson a lifeline.
Larson, was fired from CGR as Chevrolet and all the sponsors distanced themselves from him. His NASCAR future was in limbo. If he wanted to race during a pandemic, it was going to be for smaller dirt teams across the country. The luxurious NASCAR life, well it was gone and there was doubt whether it would ever come back.
So, how in the world did six months later he end up in that Hendrick seat? Especially in a world of so much social unjust. How did he turn all this around into a Cup Series championship in a span of 20 months?
“The thing that impressed me so much about Kyle (Larson) was his heart and the things he was doing above and beyond what he was asked to do,” Hendrick said last year of this signing. “I had to get comfortable with his heart and that he was really sincere. He was not afraid to tell everyone that it was a terrible thing, ‘sorry I did it. I’m going to make it right.”
Hendrick, reached out to Larson after the comments as a friend. See, Hendrick supplied engines for CGR and Larson was a driver there. They knew well of each other.
They didn’t talk racing initially though. Hendrick reaching out to Larson last spring was to just be a moral support to him. He knew who Larson was and felt like when all the world was doing was bashing him, that Larson would need a friend.
It eventually developed into a something bigger as Larson was doing his best to rebuild his reputation off the track and keep winning on dirt tracks in the process. He was dominating on dirt and when he wasn’t racing a Midget or Sprint Car, he was traveling across the country taking diversity courses and learning about the African American culture.
NASCAR eventually reinstated him. He paid his dues and admitted his faults and showed that he’s deserving of a second chance in the sport. Hendrick, still had a ride available. Larson, was the best option.
“I definitely think there’s probably a lot of people out there that have concern about me,” Larson said. “It’s not something that happens overnight. I think it’s something that takes time. I think people as they get to spend more time around me or get to see what I’m doing off the racetrack, outside the race car and get to really learn who I am. I think that’s when the forgiveness will be there and people will have a more open mind to forgive me.
“I know that takes time.”
To show just how much Hendrick believed in Larson, not only did he sign him, he signed him without a sponsor. In a day and age where it cost millions upon millions to run just one team, Hendrick was willing to do it out of his own pocket.
Larson, started off driving an unsponsored No. 5 Chevrolet for HMS.
“If I presented his case to any sponsor, I would spend a lot of time explaining to them what he did and owning up to the mistake he made and the different person he is,” Hendrick said. I know that’s not going to be easy.”
Larson quickly put last year in the rear view mirror. He had a top 10 in the Daytona 500. He won his fourth start with the team. It led to more success which was a five win regular season including a 26 race championship. After 10 playoff races, he won four more times and is a Cup champion.
“I had heard the stories that he couldn’t close, that he was fast and he would run near the wall and he’d wreck,” Hendrick said of his new driver.
“When we got him in the car, it was pretty obvious that he was pretty quick, that he could run the whole race and he was fast and he took care of the car.
“No, I knew his talent from watching him when he was driving for Chip and could see some of the things he could do with the car. So he’s impressed me.
“I think his ability to know how to race has impressed me a lot this year because he’s fast, but he knows how to race, and he knows when to race and when he needs to just take care of it.
“If you asked me did I think he could win 10 races and win the championship, I mean, I thought he’d be fast, I thought the team would be good, but I had no idea when the season started that we could win 18 races and he could win 10.
“No, you hope that you can be competitive. You hope you can run well.”
That’s two in-a-row for Hendrick with drivers he took chances on. How many more are coming? Johnson and Gordon combined to win 11 titles and 177 races. Is this now Elliott and Larson’s time to shine?
Elliott’s won 13 races, seven of which the last two races. Three of those seven came in the final five weeks of last year, all coming in cutoff races.
“Well, you know, he’s a young guy,” Hendrick said of Elliott. “I think he’s going to win a lot of them. Seven is a big number, but that’s something to shoot at.
“Chase has shown so much maturity and everything by just winning these races and now the championship at 24 years old. I think he’s got a lot left in his tank.”
Larson, won 10 times this past season alone. He had six wins, 56 top fives and 3,213 laps led in 223 prior starts before joining HMS. In 36 races this season, he had 10 wins, 20 top fives and 2,581 laps led.
This could be the next big duo and like the Gordon-Johnson years, Larson-Elliott could be the next pairing to usher in NASCAR’s future. This could be that changing of the guard moment in NASCAR.