Rick Hendrick enters the 2012 NASCAR season ready to shed the burden of some extra weight he has been carrying around with him for months. Actually, it's not really that much extra weight. Just a few pounds. Still, Hendrick is eager to get rid of it.
The weight comes in the form of a box of caps; black ones with the number 200 on the front. The caps were designed to commemorate the Hendrick Motorsports team's 200th Sprint Cup Series victory, a moment that could occur as early as Sunday's running of the Daytona 500. Hendrick Motorsports currently has 199 victories, a total the organization has steadily accumulated since its formation in 1984.
Hendrick had every reason to believe the team would reach this milestone in 2011. The organization began the year with 194 victories, and it had been 11 years since Hendrick Motorsports failed to win at least six races in a season. Two wins in the first eight races of 2011 quickly pushed the total to 196, making it time to start designing those caps.
But surprisingly, Hendrick Motorsports drivers reached Victory Lane only three more times last season, leaving the organization stuck on win No. 199, and Rick Hendrick stuck with a box of caps throughout the offseason.
"I've been hauling around these 200-win hats for about six months," Hendrick joked in late January. "To get to 200 in this sport -- that's a big number. That's something we've been talking about for years. It's a special milestone for our organization. We really want to make it a big event. Hopefully we can get it soon."
It could be argued that 200 victories by a single race team is one of the greatest accomplishments in NASCAR history. The only organization that has amassed more wins is Petty Enterprises with 268. But 200 of those victories came from one driver, Richard Petty, and the bulk of the wins took place back in the days when it was not uncommon for there to be 50 or more official Cup races in a season and with fields that did not include all of the top drivers.
The better comparison is with Hendrick's contemporaries. Roush Fenway is in second place among active teams with 125 wins. Richard Childress became a full-time team owner in 1982 -- two years before Hendrick -- and he just reached victory No. 100 last year. It has taken Joe Gibbs 20 years to accumulate 93 Cup wins.
Hendrick certainly has benefited from having two future NASCAR Hall of Famers in Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who have accounted for 140 of the victories. But 13 other Cup drivers have also taken a Hendrick Motorsports machine to Victory Lane.
Some of Hendrick's victorious drivers were stars in the sport who won races and championships before ever joining the organization (Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd). Others were journeymen who won only a handful of races in their Cup careers but managed to thrive under Hendrick's direction (Casey Mears, Jerry Nadeau, Joe Nemechek).
"To win races you really need the total package, and we've been lucky to have some great, great talent on our teams," Hendrick said. "The driver is a big part of that, and it means a lot that we've had success with so many guys. I've appreciated the opportunity to work with all of them and I wouldn't trade those relationships for anything."
Hendrick never set out to win 200 races. He said when he began the team in 1984, "I just wanted to win a race. One race." It took him barely two months to reach that goal, with Geoffrey Bodine taking the checkered flag at Martinsville Speedway to give Hendrick victory No. 1. Bodine went on to provide Hendrick with his first five Cup victories, highlighted by a win in the 1986 Daytona 500.
Hendrick Motorsports truly became a prominent player in NASCAR during the second half of the '86 season with a young driver named Tim Richmond behind the wheel. Richmond won seven of the final 17 races that season, including six victories in a 10-race span.
"He was just amazing to watch," Hendrick said of Richmond. "He loved to put on a show for the fans. That's when he was at his best. That was such an amazing season for us."
More amazing seasons were to follow, especially once Gordon joined Hendrick's stable. From 1995 through 2001, Gordon won 56 Cup races and claimed the series championship four times. He has increased his career victory total to 85 since then, placing him third on the all-time list.
"The thing that has been so special about being with Hendrick Motorsports is I never feel like we are going to fall by the wayside," Gordon said. "Sometimes we might get behind, but we're always going to get it back. He provides us with the most amazing equipment and people. As drivers, when you come to work for Hendrick Motorsports, you know you had better step up your game."
As the driver who has provided Hendrick with nearly half his wins, Gordon said he definitely wants to be the one who claims victory No. 200. But he said it is a moment the others drivers on the team -- Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and newcomer Kasey Kahne -- also want to give their boss.
"There's a very strong but friendly rivalry among us to get number 200," Gordon said. "That will drive us especially hard early in the season, because we all know how special it will be."
And if that milestone could be achieved in NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500, well, that would certainly be a feather in the commemorative cap.