Hendrick: Canadian NASCAR fans rule

Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick is introduced to the media during the NASCAR Media...

Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick is introduced to the media during the NASCAR Media Tour at Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, North Carolina Jan. 25, 2012. (REUTERS/Jason Miczek)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:46 PM ET

Rick Hendrick doesn’t get a vote when and if NASCAR bosses ever decide on expanding the Sprint Cup series into Canada.

And that’s too bad because stock car racing’s most successful team owner over the past decade said Wednesday he would vote a resounding yes.

Hendrick is the power behind Hendrick Motorsports, home to five-time Sprint Cup Jimmie Johnson, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, the sports’ most popular driver in Dale Earnhardt Jr., and this season it adds one of the best young drivers in NASCAR, Kasey Kahne.

Hendrick said Canadian fans have shown time and again that they will support big time racing.

He was at the General Motors giant assembly plant in Oshawa to pick up three of the new Camaro ZL1s that are built there.

“Canadian race fans have been among the most passionate in our sport,” he said. “We get about 200,000 fans a year going through our shop and museum in North Carolina and I’ll tell you we track those folks and about 40,000 of them are Canadians.”

Hendrick said all anybody in NASCAR has to do is look at the Nationwide Series race at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve to see what kind of fan support there is in Canada.

“It is simply a no brainer,” he said of the eventuality of a Cup race north of the 49th parallel. “I know if they asked me I would vote yes, that is for certain.”

Hendrick also heaped praise on the Canadian auto workers who build the Camaro ZL1 and who will build the 2013 Impala SS at the Oshawa plant.

And he said that if NASCAR is to continue growing it must start putting race cars on the race tracks that more closely resemble what consumers can buy at Chevrolet dealerships.

That is the main reason GM decided against putting the Camaro in the Nationwide Series to compete against Ford’s Mustang and the Dodge Challenger last season.

“I know that GM said if (the Camaro) couldn’t be relatively the same as the showroom car they didn’t want to put it in the series,” Hendrick said.

But he said he is excited that the 2013 SS model will, in fact, almost mirror what will be available at dealerships.

“We do have a 2013 Impala SS in our shop,” he said. “Actually Kasey Kahne is testing it today. I have seen the production car and the race car and they are identical.

“You can definitely tell it is a Chevrolet. It will be a rear wheel drive, fuel injected V8.”

All of that, Hendrick said, makes both racing and business sense in an era where the economy is still struggling to get back to the heady days of the late 1990s.

He said that is because it is much easier to sell a car that fans see on the race track.

“When I started in racing it was ‘win on Sunday sell on Monday’ and I know we sold a lot of Monte Carlos and Luminas when we were winning in those cars,” Hendrick said. “We are real excited about that (new SS Impala). I think that fans are ready to see a car that you sell on the showroom floor be the same as one you see on the race track.”

As for prospects of the HMS team bringing home yet another Sprint Cup championship this season, Hendrick is almost giddy at the prospect.

“The chemistry between our drivers and crew chiefs is the best it has ever been,” he said. “And our line up of drivers is super strong.

“Three made the Chase last year. I would be disappointed if all four don’t make the Chase this season.”

Remember that Tony Stewart won the 2011 Sprint Cup with cars built and powered by HMS equipment so that effectively meant Hendrick had his hand in six consecutive crowns.

He said the addition this season of Kahne, who will take over the No. 5 Chevrolet that Mark Martin drove the past two seasons, makes the team even stronger.

“I feel good about Kasey Kahne joining our organization,” Hendrick said. “Today we are testing in Pike’s Peak, Orlando and Nashville. So our teams are scattered all over the country.”

Those tests, he said, will provide valuable data on the change from carburettors to fuel injectors on NASCAR race cars.

“The new fuel injection system is working well and we are real excited about the upcoming season,” Hendrick said.

And Hendrick is not about to rest on his laurels, as there are too many teams looking over his shoulder.

“This sport is more competitive than it has ever been,” he said.

CAN'T KEEP EVERYBODY HAPPY

In Rick Hendrick’s world sometimes winning means losing.

He said it is not easy keeping everybody happy down on the farm when there are few open jobs in his company’s top echelon.

This season Hendrick saw highly sought after engineer Chris Heroy defect to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing to become crew chief for the No. 42 Chevrolet driven by Juan Pablo Montoya.

Heroy wanted a similar job at HMS but there was no opening.

“I look at it like he is a great engineer and he wanted to be a crew chief,” Hendrick said Wednesday at the Oshawa GM plant.

But Hendrick already had Chad Knaus with the No. 48 car, Steve Letarte with the No. 88 car, Alan Gustafson with the No. 24 and Kenny Francis coming in as boss for the No. 5 car, leaving no room for the ambitious Heroy.

“We let him crew chief some of the Nationwide cars but we knew sooner or later some of your No. 2 guys are going to get opportunities and you just wish them well,” Hendrick said. “We had another year on his contract and we let him out of it to go (to EGR).

“I did the same with Ray Evernham when he wanted to start his own team.”

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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