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A RACING DYNASTY

Hendrick's success derives from more than its winning drivers.

Chad Knaus hurriedly stuffed his spilled papers into an organizer as pit road became a high school hallway at final bell and Jimmie Johnson began a burnout celebrating his second straight Nextel Cup title.

Though these documents represented hours of preparation by the entirety of mighty Hendrick Motorsports, they hardly revealed the team's bedeviling formula for a burgeoning dynasty:

- Johnson, a two-time champ

- Jeff Gordon, the active leader in wins and a four-time champ

- Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's biggest name

Hendrick's formula is still not about paper as Speedweeks begins today at Daytona International Speedway.

"Hendrick Motorsports,'' Knaus said, "is all about the people.''

- - -

Every three months, the family race museum at the sprawling Hendrick campus outside of Charlotte, N.C., jammed with old cars and trophies, is cleared. The room is lined with tables and chairs.

All 550 or so employees are invited for lunch. It's part appreciation day, part affirmation of why many of them arrived as teens and will leave at retirement, whether janitor or driver.

Team owner Rick Hendrick rose to toast another bountiful year - including 18 wins among 36 races - at the Christmas party. Everyone knew Hendrick's favorite maxim was coming, but they also knew it had been proved true again.

That's why everyone involved with building a Hendrick car received a bonus for every Nextel Cup win; why they all would again receive a replica of the ring NASCAR presented Johnson's team for its championship.

"You can't sink half a ship,'' Hendrick said yet again.

"If all four of our teams and all the departments here function as a big ship, all together, working together, communicating, sharing, then we can sustain some hits, some tough times,'' recalled Marshall Carlson, Hendrick's general manager and son-in-law.

Though the people who comprise Hendrick's four Sprint (formerly Nextel) Cup teams are as competitive as any in an inherently selfish sport, the group manages to address its squabbles out of public view.

"That's what families do,'' said Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, who like Carlson, incoming crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and scores of others began their careers sweeping Hendrick's shop floor.

Team owner Jack Roush, who insists his organization is closer to Hendrick performance-wise than results suggested in 2007, said he has all of the resources and intelligence. But that might simply illustrate what he lacks.

If Hendrick's dynasty is all about people, perhaps the dynamic will allow it to last more than most.

"When things go really well, a lot of times your people get impatient with the rate at which you give them raises or the rate they get their increased responsibility because they're rock stars," Roush said.

"They're hearing about it and reading about it, and they believe that they're rock stars. ... Sometimes, you're going to have trouble holding your teams together.''

Ray Evernham, who won three championships as Gordon's crew chief before forming his own team, said even a master motivator such as Hendrick might not be able to maintain the proper human capital equation.

"You cannot run at 100 percent motivation, efficiency, even though you think you can,'' he said. "(Owners) don't like to get beat. When somebody is beating you that bad, you figure out how you can beat them. ... Everyone keeps raising the bar.''

Trouble is, Hendrick keeps raising the bar.

Johnson, 32, led the series with 10 wins in 2007 and has won at least four races every season since 2004. Gordon, 36, has 81 wins, including six and a record 30 top 10s in 2007. Casey Mears, 29, last year won his first race at NASCAR's highest level.

Kyle Busch was released to make room for Earnhardt, 33, who won 17 times in eight full seasons but not since 2006 with sometimes balky equipment at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

A winner of seven Nextel Cup titles, Hendrick trails only Petty Enterprises, which has 10. The ascendancy of Roush and Joe Gibbs Racing (three titles since 2000) blunted Hendrick's 1990s dominance. But the rise of Johnson and Gordon's resurgence has remade the team as a menace. Earnhardt's arrival could make it even better.

"Right now, they're the benchmark. Good for them,'' said Chip Ganassi, the first owner to win four consecutive CART titles. "That'll change someday.''

- - -

Hendrick is fond of another expression: No great organization will ever be undone from the outside. Success starts and ends from the inside.

But therein lies the possibility of intrigue. The inclusion of Earnhardt will be seen as the lever that could splinter the team. Hendrick has known Earnhardt and Eury since their childhood. But they represent change, a new ingredient to what has been a very sweet mix.

Hendrick insists there will be no ripples, and Earnhardt seems to have fun with his prophesied role as home wrecker.

- - -

While Roush dealt with rock stars and defections, Hendrick has endured fewer incidents, at least those that leaked out. Replacements generally came from within.

Knaus' blossoming reputation as the best crew chief in the garage - after consecutive titles and a series-best 33 wins since Johnson's rookie year of 2002 - has brought with it a blossoming self-confidence.

Any Hendrick team meeting, where gathered intelligence is shared among all drivers and crew chiefs, is attended by people with strong opinions. But the mix works.

"It is actually self-serving,'' Carlson said. "There is this perception that you can't work in a unified way and not be personally driven to succeed. That's bogus. They all believe and know the best way to get there is together and not to float off on their own little boat.''

Because this boat is going to be very hard to sink.

FAST FACTS

Bud Shootout

8 tonight, Daytona International Speedway. TV: Ch. 13

Daytona 500

3:30 Feb. 17, first race of NASCAR's Sprint Cup season. TV: Ch. 13

Speedweeks schedule, 8C

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