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Rick Hendrick discusses the careers of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus

An interview with: RICK HENDRICK

THE MODERATOR:  Rick, how are you feeling going into the weekend knowing these two legends are leaving the racetrack from a competitor’s standpoint?

RICK HENDRICK:  I talked to Jimmie probably two hours before this call.  We were kind of reminiscing old times.  Can’t believe it’s been 20 years.  It’s going to be weird to me not to see Jimmie on the track with the 48.

Chad is going to take a new role as competition director.

It’s going to be a real void not to see Jimmie.  But it was with Jeff Gordon, it was with Dale.  I should be the one retiring, not the drivers.  It does leave a hole.

Jimmie is part of the family.  We’ll still have our time off the track, but it’s definitely going to be different.

THE MODERATOR:  We’ll take questions for Rick.

I appreciate your ability to tell a good story.  I was hopeful you could tell us a story about Jimmie Johnson, maybe about why Jimmie is so special, what you see in him, an incident or something that really stood out to you.

RICK HENDRICK:  I just have to reflect back to the guy that got on the airplane with me with a T‑shirt on.  I waited at the end of a race to bring him home.  Then he becomes the champion, then he gets married, then he has kids.

I think the thing about Jimmie through all that, he’s the same Jimmie Johnson.  Never a cross word with him.  Never asked him to do anything that he didn’t do.  He’s just a guy, never hear him say anything about anybody else.  He’s as close to perfect as you can get to be a competitor that can do what he can do on the racetrack.  Just a super individual.

Is it odd that someone with his success has not become pretentious at all, nothing about him has changed him and made him a bad person or a selfish person?

RICK HENDRICK:  I think that’s super special because most everybody that gains fame, has the success he has with all the accolades, that he still is humble and maintains such, I don’t know, a professional attitude.

Like when he missed the Chase this year, this is his last year, he didn’t get to celebrate with the fans.  He hasn’t bitched about it.  I know he’s disappointed, but he’s inspired the team.  He’s had terrible luck this year.  You’d want to see a guy like that go out on top.

When I was talking to him about it, he said, You know, I have to look at all the success that I’ve had.  Yeah, I would have liked to have the fans there, my family there.  It’s not the way I wanted to end it.

But he’s kept a positive attitude.  You never see him say anything out of the way.  Everybody loves him, the sponsors, the folks in the organization.  I think when he was kicking everybody’s butt, there was a lot of animosity toward him.  When he wasn’t winning every race, everybody seemed to warm up to him.

It wasn’t because he was an obnoxious person.  I think he took all the success really in stride and just kept his head.  He’s just a model.  If you had a young child, a kid, you said, Here is a champion, watch him and how he handled himself.  I think he’s been a great role model for a lot of people.

If is there an answer to the debate, is it the car, is it the crew chief, is it the driver?  Is there an answer to that?

RICK HENDRICK:  Well, I think you have to have them all.  You got to have the car for the guy, you got to have a driver, you got to have somebody that can call the race.  You have to have them all.  He’s had moments when he looked like Jimmie of old.

I don’t think we gave him the equipment, to be honest with you, that he needed here toward the end.  We weren’t there.  The proof is we weren’t in the Playoff the last few years.

Now we are getting our stuff together.  We’ve had a lot of change with him, separating he and Chad, which they wanted to do.  That was different for him to get adjusted.  Jimmie is better than what we’ve given him I think, for sure.

Talk about Chad’s decision to step off the pit box and go into a management role, what he brings to that role?

RICK HENDRICK:  Chad’s work ethic, it’s unbelievable.  To have him come off the box and really be responsible for four cars, keep the energy level where it needs to be, I think it’s going to be really good for our organization.  I think he was ready for a change, I know he was.  He wanted a challenge.

I think he’s going to make a big difference.  We’ve got a senior guy like Alan that’s done a phenomenal job.  Jeff Andrews who has taken on so much as the competition director, now the general manager, and Chad, the two of them together I think will make our organization better.

Chad’s attention to detail.  He and Alan work super close.  Gregg was on Chad’s team, the lead engineer.  When you think about all that, I think the chemistry there and the talent Chad has for everything being the best it can be, I think it’s going to make a difference for us.

I think he’s accepting the challenge.  He’s a little nervous at first because now all of a sudden he’s the guy that makes some of the decisions, a lot of decisions.

I really think it’s going to be good for him to have a new challenge in life.  I know how detailed he is and how he wants things to be right.  I think Jeff Andrews moving up and handling some of the stuff with NASCAR and all the other things he had on his plate, I’m excited about next year, I’m excited about that move.

Jimmie’s time stretches over a long period of time at Hendrick Motorsport.  It goes back to a time being with your son, the relationship he had.  Certainly how Jimmie honored Ricky in the pursuit of the seventh championship.  What kind of special memories are there that have been brought up with Jimmie and Ricky as you reach this point?  Is there a concern that as this chapter closes there’s a little bit of that chapter of your son closing?  Obviously you still have the relationship with Jimmie, but he’ll be off doing different things.  Someone else from an era that won’t be around as much.

RICK HENDRICK:  Yeah, Jimmie and I were talking about that.  Every time we get together, he starts telling me stories about Ricky I never heard before.  Actually this morning I said, Hey, I want to get together with you.  I just want us to sit around and tell stories.  It actually brings back a lot of great memories for me.

I think Ricky, we’ve done scholarships in his name, we’ve got a lot of things to try to keep his memory alive.  Jimmie was special with him.  Ricky was the one that told me, You need to hire this guy, he’s going to be a superstar.  Then Jeff raced against him.

You know, time moves on.  You just have to hang on to those little nuggets that you see.  I’ve been running Ricky’s paint scheme again.  Everybody enjoys that part of bringing the 5 back next year, is part of history.

So I can always remember that I paid attention to him when he told me, You need to really look at this guy because he’s going to be a superstar.

I had to wait for him.  That’s the one I’ll never forget.  Ricky is racing, asking, Can Jimmie Johnson go home with us?  Yes.

Five or 10 laps into the race his alternator goes out in St. Louis, he parks the car.  I’m ready to go home.  We got to wait for Jimmie.  Three and a half hours I’m sitting on the plane.  I got him some cheeseburgers so he has some food.  Jimmie and I laugh about that story.

No, a lot of great memories.

You said Jimmie brought up a story today when you were talking to him that he brought up about Ricky.  Can you share that one?

RICK HENDRICK:  I don’t think so (laughter).

When you think back about Jimmie and Chad, obviously all of their greatest successes are kind of inextricably linked to you or the famous milk and cookies meeting you had after the ’05 season.  Do you ever reflect back on that and think would they have had the same degree of success if you hadn’t brought them in and done that?  What are your memories of that?

RICK HENDRICK:  It was a situation where we were so close to making a change because they were fighting like cats and dogs.  But I looked at it and said, They’re just so good, how can we get over this hump?  If you separate them, you don’t ever know if they would have had the success they would have had together because I could see that.

They were so up tight when they came in.  We started talking.  I had the gallon of milk and the cookies.  I said, We’re going to have some cookies and milk, then we’ll sit on the floor and have a little bit of peace time here.  They started laughing.

When they started laughing, I said, Look, you know how close you guys are at fixing this.  You don’t know what is around the corner, but you can fix this if you work together.  I think you’re going to be great.  They laughed.

Hey, tell me what you don’t like about him.  Tell me what you don’t like.  Chad, what is rubbing you wrong with Jimmie?  Jimmie, what is rubbing you?

When they started talking, Is that really a problem?  Is that something we’re going to have a divorce over?  I felt like a marriage counselor there, but it worked out.

Have you ever wondered how much success they could have had apart if you hadn’t been able to mend that fence?  Do they still win championships apart from each other?

RICK HENDRICK:  I think they probably would.  I don’t think either one on their own at that point would have been as good as they were together.  Chad was kind of a leader.  He pushed Jimmie.  Jimmie needed a little bit of that.  Jimmie started to come into his own, and he didn’t want that.

I think the combination when they started was so good, then they just started clicking.  I’m super glad that we were able to keep them together because the proof is in what they did.

A lot of people mention how Jimmie’s run and his talent overall behind the wheel is a bit underappreciated.  Why do you think that is?  If you personally don’t feel that way, why do you think a lot of other people in the industry or sport may feel that way?

RICK HENDRICK:  I think Jimmie did it without a lot of fanfare.  He could have been cocky.  He could have been challenging other drivers in the media, whatever.  But he wasn’t that way.

I think the success he had got to be almost so routine that people just didn’t appreciate the talent that he had.  They thought, Well, it’s the car.  Well, it was Chad.

It took the guy to wheel the car.  The combination of the two of them were really good.  I mean, probably the best combination the sport’s ever seen.  But I think Jimmie has been appreciated more after he won the five in a row, then winning in ’16.

I think that’s been true with Gordon, Earnhardt and a lot of the drivers that have been champions.  After the fact, they seem to be appreciated more.  You look at the talent that they had…

The infamous golf cart incident in 2006.  It was 14 years ago.  Take us back there, what your thoughts were about that situation at the time.

RICK HENDRICK:  Well, I took him to the hospital that night.  I met him when he got back.  The first report we got was he was riding in the golf cart.  Then I think things changed and he was riding on top of the golf cart.  This feels like that was yesterday, not that many years ago.

But, no, it was one of those things that you think, What were you doing?  What were you thinking?  But I think it made more of a splash because the story came out that he fell out of the golf cart, then he was on top of the golf cart.

He was enjoying himself, so…  Everybody is entitled to have a little fun.

Looking for the future, Jimmie is going to be driving in INDYCAR, gosh knows what else.  You’ll have a place for him there in the organization if he decides he wants to do that.  Is he going to be around helping to mentor drivers?  If he decides to finally hang up his racing gloves, do you see a role for him there at the team, some sort of executive position?  Is that something you have talked about?

RICK HENDRICK:  I think Jimmie, he wants a break.  He doesn’t want to race every weekend.  He wants to spend time with his family.  They do a lot of things together.  He wants other challenges.

I think you’ll see him not just in INDYCAR, I think you’ll see him in sports cars.  He’ll be in the 24 Hours of Daytona.  He’ll be doing a lot of, lot of driving in other series.

I think he just needs a break.  He’s got this excitement.  When he drove that F1 car, he was as excited as he was when he won a championship.  He was really pumped up about that.  So he’s a guy that likes challenges.  Whether it’s snow skiing, anything he does, he wants to do it to the max.

What he’s told me, he wants to spend time with his family.  He wants to look at other venues that are on his bucket list.  He’s a heck of a talent.  I think he’ll do well in anything he decides to do.

If he wants to come back and help me, I’m ready.

When Jeff was doing his last few races, I asked you if it was alright for people to feel emotional about it.  You said, yes, that there is emotion in racing, that you felt the emotion of it.  Jeff took Hendrick Motorsports to a certain level, became like a son to you.  It was special to have Dale Jr. in the team.  Now with Jimmie leaving, are the emotions, your personal emotions, thinking about Jeff ending, then Dale Jr., now Jimmie, are those emotions kind of the same or are they kind of different and individual to each one of those drivers?

RICK HENDRICK:  You have a great relationship with all of them.  Basically emotions are emotions.  I get super close to all of my guys.  They’re all like family to me.  When the realization that this is the last race, whether it’s Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, it meant so much to me.  Dale, he filled a void.  Jimmie, I won’t say I raised him, but he’s been with me his entire career.  I’ve watched him as a rookie come up to be a champion.

The good news is I try to tell myself that I’m going to have a relationship with these guys.  It’s not going to end.  That’s what Jimmie and I were talking about today.  We’re still family.  We’re going to do things together.  But the emotional side of seeing this history come to an end with all of these guys, it’s been real emotional.

It’s different, you’re right.  Each one is a little different.  I go back to the same thing:  raw emotions are emotions.  They get choked up, you get choked up because it’s the end of something special.

THE MODERATOR:  That will wrap‑up our availability with Rick Hendrick on the careers of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

Thank you so much for the time, Mr. H.

RICK HENDRICK:  Thank you.

— NASCAR —