Rabalais: Hendrick Motorsports’ success satisfying for Lance McGrew

NASCAR rarely takes a week off once the season begins in February.

That’s especially true for Hendrick Motorsports.

Stock car racing’s most dominant team is having an unusually impressive 2014 even by its gold-plated standards.

Three Hendricks drivers — Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and the ever-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. — stand 1-2-3 atop NASCAR’s Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday’s first road race of the season in Sonoma, California (2 p.m., TNT).

Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt have combined to win the past five Sprint Cup points races. Earnhardt also won the season-opening Daytona 500, his second time to take the checkers in NASCAR’s biggest event.

Gordon and Johnson have both won on Sonoma’s twisting California wine country track, so it would hardly be a surprise to see a Hendrick Chevrolet climbing the amber-colored hills out in front of the pack on this shimmering summer afternoon.

The surplus of success doesn’t exactly surprise Baton Rouge native Lance McGrew, a 14-year veteran with Hendrick.

The former crew chief, who now heads up the organization’s research and development department, knows the Hendrick way has bred a lot of success over the years.

But this season is a bit much even for this overachieving crew.

“It’s a tough business,” McGrew said. “It’s so cyclical. There are times when you have a clear advantage in the motor shop or the chassis is working better or you have something figured out, but that usually doesn’t last long.”

This season, it has. McGrew said the last time any organization won five straight races, it was Hendrick back in 2007.

“That’s amazing,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times they’ve won four in a row.

“It’s not like it’s the same team here year in and year out. People come and go and shuffle around, but the powers that be always put everything in the right spot.”

Helping put all the Hendrick teams in a winning spot is McGrew’s primary job after years sitting atop a pit box as a crew chief.

He ventures away from Hendrick headquarters in Charlotte, North Carolina, a little less often now, spending maybe four days a month supervising a pair of testing sessions at various NASCAR tracks across the country.

“When we go to the track, our job is obtaining data,” McGrew said. “Ultimately the changes we make in the car and pull from the track tests are used to enhance our simulation programs. We wrote our own years ago, and we work daily to get it more and more accurate so it will work faster and our engineers don’t have to wait to formulate their answers.

“Everything we do is to give teams better tools. That starts with good information. Bad information will make things worse.”

Despite the Hendrick organization’s top-team status today, McGrew is fully aware that success in NASCAR is always a moving target.

A fast-moving target.

“Everyone is smart enough to realize the rest of the garage area (other teams) is working as hard as you are,” McGrew said. “You never settle. You never put your guard down.

“When we come back to race in Charlotte in October, your car will be better: lighter, better suspension package, better engine. That comes from working every single day. If you’re not progressing, you’re regressing. In racing, that’s very accurate.”

McGrew, who once served a stormy tenure as Earnhardt’s crew chief, has won races on every level he’s worked: K&N Pro Series, ARCA, NASCAR’s truck series, the Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup.

Like the select club of 32 men who are NFL coaches, there is a similar feeling to being one of 43 crew chiefs atop a pit box for a Sprint Cup race. But McGrew, who last served as a Sprint Cup crew chief in 2011, has embraced his new role of trying to make all of Hendrick’s teams championship contenders — not just one at a time.

“I’ve been in Charlotte 20 years now and full-time on a Nationwide or Cup deal for 14 years. That’s a lot of road time,” said McGrew, 46. “Being gone three days a week and maybe having a half-day off on Thursday to get clothes washed and get back on a plane, that sort of wears you down.

“For me to still feel like I contribute on a company level to make the cars faster and still be gone a couple of days a month, that’s still a very fulfilling role.”

So if you see another Hendrick Chevy pull into Victory Lane on Sunday, think about the men behind the winning driver and the confetti and the beer shower from his pit crew.

Think about the Baton Rouge native back at the R and D department with a satisfied smile on his face.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.