NASCAR Transcripts: Rick Hendrick – Press Conference – Championship Owner

THE MODERATOR: Thank you so much for joining us today, Mr. H. We appreciate you spending some time with us. I know you have a very busy schedule. We appreciate you taking the time to do so.

First off, congratulations on having both William and Kyle in the Championship 4 this weekend. We wish you guys the best of luck.

We’ll go ahead and go to questions from the media.

Q. We’ve talked a lot about William and his work ethic, just how much he puts into it. Knowing all that, did you ever have any doubt on Sunday that he was going to make it into the Final 4?

RICK HENDRICK: Yeah.

Q. You did?

RICK HENDRICK: Yes. Well, Sunday I did, yeah (smiling).

That was a nail-biter. He’s won that race before. We’ve been so good at Martinsville. That was a struggle. It was just a tough race. As it played out, once we could see that probably the 12 was going to win, we had to finish I think 18th or better, we were in good shape.

Not the way we wanted to finish that race.

Q. How do you feel now you have two chances? Do you like either one of them better than the other? How do you prepare the two?

RICK HENDRICK: You really expect me to answer that (smiling)?

Q. I do.

RICK HENDRICK: Well, listen, both of them have had a great year. When you look at William, he’s won six races, Kyle four plus the All-Star Race. We’re taking two good cars. William won that race in the spring. We’re just happy to be in the race. We’re happy to have two cars going out there to race for the championship.

Both cars have run good all year. I hope that one of ’em can win. I don’t see that either one has any more advantage over the other guy. If anything, William did win the spring race, so… That doesn’t make any difference when you go back.

I think our guys are prepared. We’re going to go out with the best cars we have. A lot of attention to detail. We’ll try to execute a race without any mistakes. That’s what you got to do. You have to have good pit stops. Cautions have to fall the right way. You can be a dominant car and not win this race, so we’ve just got to run the race.

Again, when you start the year, you want to try to get cars to the Championship 4. When you can get one or two, you’ve had a great year.

Very happy that we’re going to be there with these two guys and we’ll see how it works.

Q. There hasn’t been a driver raised in North Carolina who has won the championship since Dale Jarrett in ’99. William could be the first since then. Does it matter?

RICK HENDRICK: I think to have a guy like William that grew up here in Charlotte, is kind of a native of the Charlotte market where all the teams are based, I think it would be a great message for him to win the championship.

I don’t think where you’re from makes any difference. Where you live now is what counts. Kyle is here. Blaney is here. Christopher Bell is here. Maybe it’s bragging rights for the states, but I don’t see any difference. They’re all living here now and racing in NASCAR.

I think William’s age, his story, really would be a big story if you take a kid that didn’t grow up in the sport, that had no connections in the sport, that was able to go to college and do all the things he has done, learning how to race on a computer, I think that is kind of like when Jeff Gordon came on the scene and opened the door for a lot of open-wheel guys.

I think what this can do for a lot of kids that are from anywhere in the country, in the world, that racing on a computer, there’s opportunity if you get in the right spot.

I think William is a great example for a lot of kids, young people, that have a dream of racing in this sport, seeing that you can put those tools to work and accomplish something pretty spectacular.

Q. Do you think it makes a difference whether you’ve been in it before or won a championship before? You have, say, a William Byron that is relatively new, it is such a big task, yet he’s very talented. You have Kyle Larson, folks that have been in it before. Does that make a difference, in your mind?

RICK HENDRICK: I really don’t think so. The nerves are there for both guys. I was just with Cliff out in the shop a few minutes ago. You can see the intensity that’s there.

You say you’ve been there before. The way this thing plays out, you got to go run one race. Once they strap in the car, everybody that’s got a car in this race is going to do the very best they can to take the best car they’ve got with all the information that they can gather to be ready for this race.

I don’t think it’s any more pressure for William this weekend than it was last weekend, just trying to make it into the race. So I’ve seen Jimmie Johnson after winning four straight as nervous as he was, Chad, going into the next race.

I think the organization has experience of running for a championship, so he’s surrounded by four crew chiefs and four drivers, an organization that has been there before with Jeff Andrews, Jeff Gordon, all of the folks that support the team.

I think we give him all the moral support, but preparation here and trying to call a good race and execute. I think when you look at Rudy, he’s as good as there is in the sport, and so is Cliff. I think they’re prepared. Once he straps in the car…

I think getting ready to go, all the conversations and interviews going into the race, the pressure of knowing you’ve raced the whole year, and for William, he’s raced his life, here is a shot to win a championship. Yeah, that’s going to be more pressure, a lot of pressure. For sure Kyle has won one, so it’s not his first.

Again, I’ve watched these guys when they get ready to go into a one-race deal. The nerves are there. But once they get in the car, I think everybody will be ready to go.

Q. Some said that William, no discredit to him, had a sense of panic almost on the radio, that he almost panicked there. That’s what you get when you’re thrown into that, what you’ll face coming up. He will not have to face the likes of Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin. They’re all relatively young guys. What do you think of that?

RICK HENDRICK: William is very mature for his age. He’s come a long way in a short period of time. To be a champion at his age or win more races than anybody has this year shows his talent and the talent of that team.

I think every experience is a learning experience. Again, I go back to watching Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson get ready. This is not fair to say, but I like the old system before where you can win a race before the end of the year and you don’t have to go down to one race with four cars.

We know we’re having a battle with two really good teams with a lot of momentum. It’s just an honor to be in it, to have the two cars in it.

Again, everybody gives Kyle a tremendous amount of credit as one of the best that ever sat in any kind of car. William’s kind of been under the radar. For a guy that’s won six races, had a chance to win the regular-season championship, for him to accomplish what he has, he’s kind of been under the radar. Nobody has talked about him a lot.

If you look at what he’s been able to do, it’s pretty impressive. At his age, the chemistry between he and Rudy, I think there will be a lot of championships in their horizon.

Q. Back to 2016 when you signed William Byron, you had Dale Jr. on your roster, Chase Elliott’s rookie year, Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson. What led to going after William? Why did you decide to make the move at that point?

RICK HENDRICK: The thing about William I was so impressed with is how quickly he learned, what he did in late models, what he did in the legend cars, everything he got in.

More than anything to have a determination, have a goal and go after it. What blew me away with William was the fact that he won that I guess K&N Series championship, became an Eagle Scout, graduated Country Day, which is the toughest private school in Charlotte, college courses at the same time. He did all that in the same year.

I kept up with William through my neighbor that was friends with his dad. He said, Can you believe that kid raced on Saturday, Sunday, got in the car, went to the mountain, slept in a tent at eight degrees to get an Eagle badge?

When I looked at him, watched him, remember what he did at JRM, how confident he was when he walked up to me one day when he was 15, said, I’m going to drive for you one day.

He just had the whole package. You put him in the right spot, give him time, he’s going to develop into something special because he’s a special guy. He has got a drive and determination.

You see him, you think he’s a mild-mannered little guy, he’s not got a killer instinct. His determination to succeed and his willingness to work hard, his willingness to put in the extra hours, to spend time in a simulator when nobody else wants to do it, they’ve done it, the time is open, he’ll take it.

His work ethic is so impressive. I just felt like if he was in the right spot with the right people, he was going to do great things. It’s turned out to be that way.

Q. Moving him up to Cup in 2018, great success at lower levels, there’s always the question do you move somebody up quickly, throw them to the wolves, or do you give them more time. You moved him up quickly. Why so and the reservations?

RICK HENDRICK: I’m probably different than a lot of people. I think you can leave them in Xfinity too long. You learn a lot. Where you’re going to spend your time…

I look at Ty Gibbs as an example. Ty, it was time for him to move up. He won a championship. William did, too, in Xfinity. If you’re going to drive with those guys, you might as well put them out there and let them learn, know they’re going to make some mistakes, they’re not going to be as aggressive.

William showed me, again, that he’s willing to take what the car will give him and learn. When he makes a mistake, his restarts weren’t that good, things he had to learn, he had to get the respect of all the guys out there.

Kind of done it with Chase, did it with Jeff, did it with Jimmie. Our kind of track record has been, if the guy’s got talent, he’s spent a year or two in Xfinity, he’s won and run up front, then if he’s going to end up in Cup, put him in there and let him learn, let him learn where he’s going to be racing, gain the experience, get the respect of guys around him.

William didn’t come in roughing up people. He raced everybody clean. People have a lot of respect for him. He’s earned it.

I think if I had it to do over, I’d do it that way again. Sometimes you might make a mistake. But if the guy’s got talent, you might as well put him in the ring where he’s going to have to live.

Q. Looking at Cliff Daniels, when the decision was made to pair him with Jimmie Johnson in 2019, why was he the right crew chief for Jimmie then and not necessarily the right crew chief for Jimmie when Chad moved on?

RICK HENDRICK: Oh, man. You want a guy to mature, you want to see what they can do. You’re a good team engineer, you think you’re ready, you want to put him in the right spot.

In hindsight, it’s easy to look back and say wish I’d done it then, knowing how good Cliff is, how quick he learned, how quick he matured, how he became a leader. It’s been so impressive. Hindsight I probably would have done something different. At the time we thought that was the thing to do.

It’s a crapshoot sometimes when you move a guy in the crew chief position that can be a great engineer, but can they lead a team, can they lead people. You don’t really know that till you put them in that position, then you see what they’re capable of doing.

Being a crew chief in this sport today is a lot more than just being a guy that understands the car. You got to be able to lead the people around you. You have to have the respect of the people that are in the organization. You have to use all the tools that are around you. It takes time.

I’m probably slower moving a crew chief than I am the drivers, as we talked about a minute ago. Yeah, looking back, you just don’t know how a guy is going to blossom as a leader. I mean, that’s the key in this sport, I think, for a good crew chief.

I go back to Steve Letarte. Steve Letarte probably wasn’t the smartest guy in the organization as knowing the car, but as a leader and as a motivator, as a guy that could make everybody from the pit crew to the driver to the engineers all work together, he was a master.

You got to learn. You got to be able to do all those things. I think that’s one reason we didn’t move him any quicker than we did. That was probably a mistake.

Q. When the decision was made to pair him with Kyle Larson, what was the impetus behind that decision?

RICK HENDRICK: I think it was time to move him and the opening was there. Kyle had a lot of experience driving all kinds of cars. We felt like that was just a good combination at the time.

There again, did not know the leadership skills that Cliff had. We could see the drive and the desire. He was a little bit more subdued as an engineer than he has been as a crew chief. When you have a champion like Jimmie Johnson, you try to make sure that you put the right person with him, and you don’t want to make a mistake.

With Kyle, we just felt like Cliff had shown he was ready. What an awesome combination it’s proven to be. Cliff is a very intense guy, and Kyle is a little bit of a laid-back guy. They click. The marriage there has been a very good one. They like each other, respect each other, and they want to work together.

That’s the secret sauce in this business. Sometimes you put two together, and the chemistry just isn’t there. It has worked with these two.

Q. You said a minute ago how big a story you think William’s story would be if he won the championship. You expressed how impressive his season has been. Under the radar. If he’s able to win the championship, do you think that would be just as big a deal that a driver who arguably has been the best driver all season statistically can cap it up and win the championship in this format, kind of like what Kyle did in 2021?

RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, I think it’s going to be a huge story. I think William Byron’s story in general is just a very impressive one. I think the fact that he has had the kind of year he’s had, if he can go out there and win the championship at his age and his level of experience in the sport, shows his talent and Rudy’s talent and their chemistry.

I think William is a good poster child, I don’t want to say poster child, but poster guy maybe, for a lot of young people that have ambitions to be in racing or any sport that you want to work as hard as he’s worked to get there.

Not a whole lot of help from a lot of different people. I mean, he did it on his own. He knew what steps he needed to take and he did it. Super confident in his ability and just a good person, too. For a guy that represents the sponsors well, squeaky clean but aggressive when he needs to be, and just a good person.

You don’t have to apologize for anything with him. I think that’s one of the reasons he’s kind of been under the radar. He’s not outspoken. He doesn’t run his mouth. He doesn’t go out and rough people up. He’s done it in a very professional way.

I think it would be a tremendous story if a kid that started at 14 or 15 years old on a computer can end up marching through the Truck Series and Xfinity Series and then the Cup Series, cap off a year where he won more races than anybody did and win the championship, I think it would be a really great story for NASCAR and a lot of the fans.

Q. Last year we had the introduction of the Next Gen car. Is this year the introduction of our next generation of Cup champions?

RICK HENDRICK: I think this is what kind of shows you, I won’t say anybody, but there’s probably 10 or 15 guys out there in the right position that could be in this Playoff, be one of the guys in the Final 4.

You look at the talent of the people out there, the way these cars equalize the field. On any given day you see organizations that rise to the top. Stewart-Haas will be at four cars in the top 10, Gibbs will have three cars or four cars in the top 10, Penske, all of us. Then all of a sudden you see Mike or people win races.

I think it opens the sport up. I think it’s what Jim France wanted and what NASCAR wanted and the fans wanted, to equalize the field and see multiple people have shots to win races.

I think this car has taken a lot of the engineering tricks or all the different things that teams were able to do to gain advantage away from everybody. We’re basically racing the same car. When you look at the motors, they’re all pretty close. I mean, they’re within three or four horsepower of each other from Toyota to Ford to Chevrolet.

The advantage in the sport today is pit crews, having a really good pit crew that’s fast, guys calling the race not making any mistakes. Do you know how many times this year we’ve seen restarts where a guy is leading all day, all of a sudden there’s a caution that comes, here is a restart, and the guy that was sixth or seventh ends up winning the race.

The wild card today is restarts, getting track position. Whether you get it with two tires, no tires, fuel only, whatever you do. We’ve been fortunate enough to win this year, like I said, 11 races. Some of those races we were in the right spot at the right time, some of the races we dominated.

I think what you’ve seen with all the winners and how many people were in the 16-car Playoff, I think NASCAR is getting what they want with the car. It’s making the field more equal than it’s ever been.

Q. You’re familiar with Kyle and William, believe they could win championships. You’re familiar with Ryan Blaney and Christopher Bell. Any surprise for you that they’ve reached this point?

RICK HENDRICK: No, not at all. I mean, Christopher Bell is a heck of a talent. I watched him in the sprints and midgets, watched him race. He has an awesome amount of talent. Joe Gibbs, his organization is one of the best. The same with Ryan Blaney. I think he’s one of the most talented guys out there. The Penske organization, Roger and Joe both are good friends of mine. They lack for nothing. I mean, they’re the best. Blaney is as good as anybody out there. So is Christopher.

I hate to have to race those two ’cause they definitely are going to be hard to beat. I’m not surprised at all that they’re there.

Q. When Kyle won his championship a couple years ago, we talked a lot about what it meant for the 5 car to be back to prominence. If William is able to close it out and win the championship this weekend, it will be 22 years since Jeff’s last championship in that car. What would it mean for the organization for the 24 to be champion again?

RICK HENDRICK: Yeah, I remember when we won the hundredth race with the 24. The 24 won our first championship. That’s a number that everybody here, it’s close to everybody’s heart.

To see that car win again is super special. I think we’ve seen Chase win with the car No. 9 that means so much to him. Of course, the 5, Kyle won the championship with it.

To see the 24 back in Victory Lane winning a championship with William is going to be special. I kind of know who Jeff Gordon is probably pulling for (smiling).

Anyway, it is special ’cause that number has meant so much to us, of course what Jeff’s done with it. It would be very, very special to see the 24 in Victory Lane Sunday.

THE MODERATOR: Rick, thank you for your time today. We appreciate it. We wish you guys the best of luck this weekend in Phoenix.

RICK HENDRICK: Thank you.

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