Hendrick keeps testy drivers focused on 'the big picture'

October 10th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: Hendrick keeps testy drivers focused on 'the big picture'


Don't envy NASCAR owner Rick Hendrick this week. Not only does he have three cars struggling in the Chase, now he has a shop divided with winners and whiners.
UAW-Ford 500 winner Brian Vickers found himself in a no-win situation Sunday when he crashed teammate Jimmie Johnson and race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the way to his first Nextel Cup victory.
Vickers, 22 and a lame duck at Hendrick (he's committed to race Toyotas for Team Red Bull next year), had no place to go once he pulled out of line, ostensibly to aid Johnson in a bump-draft bid to pass Earnhardt Jr. with two turns left.
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Johnson thought Vickers overdrove it, although Earnhardt's block left Vickers with little alternative than to send the front-runners skidding to the infield. Earnhardt fans, in abundance at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, were convinced of the same, hurling obscenities and assorted trash at Vickers, who was left to play post-race apologist.
"I hate it for Jimmie, and I apologize to him," said Vickers, already excluded from Hendrick team meetings. "I didn't expect for us to win. I was looking to maybe get second place by pushing Jimmie by the No. 8. I can promise you he was not going to pull out and pass that No. 8 car by himself."
Vickers' words rang hollow with Johnson, bidding to overcome a lackluster start in the Chase and get back in the title hunt.
"I'm just bummed out that we can't take advantage of a day when we could really close up in points," said Johnson, who finished 24th. "It is a tough blow. He was in position to finish second or third and gave me one hell of a push from behind."
Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus said he was "upset, disappointed and sad" but said there'd be no "rift between his crew and the No. 25 team." But a rift among drivers already might be irreparable.
Chase contender Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion with Hendrick, was highly critical of Vickers during the September race at New Hampshire, when Vickers made it difficult for him to pass.
"I'll come on the radio when I see that," Hendrick said. "I'll say, 'Think about the big picture and think about what it's going to do to the organization if one of you takes the other guy out.' "
Hendrick has seen his cars duel more than once, including the May race at Talladega when Johnson won and Vickers was third.
"You hold your breath," said Hendrick, who once had two drivers —Ken Schrader and Ricky Rudd— running 1-2 at Martinsville before taking each other out. "I think I worry more about them racing each other and wrecking than who's going to win the race. It always scares me — like (Oct. 1) in Kansas when Kyle (Busch) and Jimmie were up front running so close together and racing hard.
"It's hard to get guys to work together when they have to go out there and race each other. We have to look at it like this: If we're good enough, let's hope it comes down to two or three of us racing each other."
Vickers, who was back in North Carolina on Monday while Johnson remained at Talladega for Car of Tomorrow testing, dedicated Sunday's win to Ricky Hendrick, the late son of Rick Hendrick. In 2002, Ricky Hendrick hand-picked Vickers over his father's objections to succeed him in the Busch car that would win the 2003 series championship. Even with Vickers already parting ways and dissension in the ranks, that history might prevent Hendrick from considering a driver change sooner rather than later.
Vickers spokesman Chris Haid said Monday it was unlikely that Vickers would be replaced in the No. 25 car before the end of the season unless Casey Mears, slated to drive the car in 2007, is released early from his contract with Ganassi Racing.