CONCORD, N.C. – A new preseason tradition with Hendrick Motorsports has been born, largely thanks to Jeff Gordon.
The retired NASCAR legend created a fun and lighthearted way to kick off the 2020 season by masterminding a “play date” for all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers and crew chiefs.
Chase Elliott, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman and their crew chiefs all met at the drag strip adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for an obstacle course competition, NASCAR style.
“Having my perspective now on racing after stepping away from it, you realize how important it is to build chemistry among you and your team, but also among your teammates, and Rick Hendrick certainly built his organization on that, and I think that you’re always trying to come up with ideas on how to grow that,” Gordon said.
The idea for the team bonding session bloomed last year, when Gordon went to a training session and drivers were able to compete in similar activities as a part of friendly competition. For Gordon, it was important for the Hendrick Motorsports teams to get together and have fun before the season officially begins at Daytona.
“Chase Elliott and I went to FBI training … and when I left there I said this is such an amazing way to engage your brain and get yourself ready to go into a competitive battle in the season, and so (I) ran it by (Hendrick Motorsports president) Marshall Carlson and some of the guys and said, ‘I’d love to do this to kick off the season.’ Of course, it expanded from there to a whole ‘nother level, thanks to Dale Ledbetter, Michael Landis and a bunch of folks … We wanted to have three events to challenge them (and) have a point system, obviously put them on the clock and also be kind of technical (with) precision mixed in with speed.”
The obstacle course was divided into three tasks, where the drivers competed to finish each task without going outside predetermined parameters.
The first two events were tracks set up by Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports crew members with the simple objective of finishing the fastest. The last task was a slalom-style course set up with cones with two “boxes” created with tall cones at each end of the slalom.
The drivers needed to drive forward through the slalom and enter the first box without knocking into any cones, then had to slalom backward and enter the other box, rear bumper first.
While entering the second box backward, the driver had to get his bumper as close as possible to a tall cone with an egg perched on top. If a driver ran over a cone throughout the course or knocked the egg over, one second per mistake was deducted off his time.
Elliott took home the honors for the best overall score, winning a trophy with a gearshift on top of Hendrick Motorsports’ signature H.
“I did terrible at the first little road course and then after that I felt like things were good,” Elliott said after his win. “But honestly, all of it is challenging and the whole hitting-a-cone thing and it adding time – you’re wanting to get as close as you can, so it’s easy to mess up.”
Separately, Elliott’s crew chief Alan Gustafson, Byron’s crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew Cliff Daniels and Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives participated in the same obstacle course against each other.
It was Daniels who took home the trophy for doing the best overall among the other crew chiefs.
“…The drivers and the crew chiefs are all so competitive in what we do every week and to be competitive with each other in this environment where it’s fun and we can rag on each other and have a good time, it absolutely creates a bond because you make fun of a guy for a mistake, but then he wins the next round,” Daniels said.
Johnson added all the teams and crew chiefs being together was huge as he prepares for his final racing season.
“For me, everything is in this feel-good moment, so I was very happy to come out today and see my friends and be around everybody. I’m really going to try and savor each moment I can this year," he said. "Even though it’s the first time we have done something like this, it’s rare to have the drivers and crew chiefs in the same spot, especially in the same place where our guards are down and we are relaxed and having fun."
Even though this is the first year Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports put on the friendly competition, it’s something the teams want to continue each year before the start of the season. As a new obstacle course winner is crowned every year, the reigning winners will pass their trophies to the new victorious drivers.