It's lunchtime at Hendrick Motorsports in Concord, N.C., and 550 employees gather in a hangar-size meeting hall. The workers—who power four of NASCAR's 43 racing teams—bow their heads in prayer. Then, after they eat, owner Rick Hendrick takes the stage. He congratulates them for their performance last year, when Hendrick's drivers won half of NASCAR's 36 races and his breakout star, Jimmie Johnson, earned his second consecutive championship. "But that was last year, and we're not going to talk about that anymore," Hendrick says. "We're in a new year."
At this week's 50th running of the Daytona 500, fans will get a sense of whether Hendrick's winning streak continues. This season, Johnson, superstar Jeff Gordon and up-and-comer Casey Mears will be joined by the sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Adding Earnhardt to the roster is a coup—but injecting Junior's outsize personality into this tight-knit group may test Hendrick's management style. "That's the story everybody is waiting for—that there's no way we're going to have those roosters in one henhouse," Hendrick says. "But I'm damned determined to make it work."
Hendrick has much riding on that bet. His operation consumes nearly $200 million a year, much of it provided by sponsors who demand wins. Hendrick had raced as a teenager before starting a string of car dealerships (now a $4 billion business), but when he launched his first race team in 1984, conventional wisdom held that it was best to bankroll a single driver; running multiple teams would create dilution, division and favoritism. Hendrick disagreed. "He was regarded as fanciful, pie-in-the-sky," says Liz Clarke, author of "One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation." "Racing isn't a collaborative thing—it's an 'I-want-to-put-the-other-guy-into-the-wall' kind of sport."
But by 1987 Hendrick owned three teams, and as the costs of building competitive race cars skyrocketed, other owners gradually adopted his view that spreading costs over four teams (NASCAR's maximum per owner) is the only way to compete. "It's very clear there are economies of scale here," says Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist.
Inside Hendrick's sprawling garages are some clues how his teams do it. To share information, his crews use a database that lets Jeff Gordon's crew chief instantly see if, say, Jimmie Johnson's team reduces tire pressure. The four drivers aren't required to cooperate on the track (which NASCAR rules allow), but since 2006 they've begun meeting each week to compare notes. Hendrick has even toyed with compensation schemes to make everyone play nicely: starting last year, employees received a bonus for each race won by any Hendrick driver.
Upstairs, Hendrick, 58, presides from a conference room filled with photos of his son—a reminder that, had things worked out differently, he'd likely be semiretired now. During the 1990s, Hendrick was diagnosed with leukemia (he beat it) and faced bribery charges in a dealership kickback scandal (he pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was later pardoned by President Clinton). But his biggest tragedy came in 2004, when his private plane crashed en route to a race, killing his only son, Ricky, 24, Hendrick's brother John, two nieces and four other employees. Hendrick had planned to turn the racing operation over to Ricky by now, but "for me to walk away from this, it'd almost be like they died for nothing," he says.
Hendrick's biggest management concern of late has been the economy. During a conference call one afternoon, he talks with dealers about slowing auto sales. The economic slowdown affects sponsors like Lowe's and DuPont, too. Hendrick admits to waking up at night worrying about business—he keeps his to-do list (currently 157 items) by his bedside. Right now his top priority is ensuring sponsors see measurable benefits from NASCAR. Sponsors appreciate that. "Rick is an ideas guy," says Bob Gfeller, senior v.p. at Lowe's, for whom Hendrick has helped broker deals with General Motors and Gatorade.
For now, Hendrick waves off concerns about how well Earnhardt—who's profane and rebellious, a contrast to Hendrick's starched, polished drivers—will fit in. "I don't want to change Junior, but I'm not going to let him change us," Hendrick says. If each driver sees his share of checked flags, it's likely they'll all finish happy.