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Kenny Bruce, Sportingnews.com

Rick Hendrick Says Association With Phoenix Doesn’t Circumvent Four-Team Cap

CONCORD, NC – Rick Hendrick bristled at the suggestion that his Hendrick Motorsports team might be seen as gaining an unfair advantage through its relationship with Phoenix Racing and owner James Finch.

Hendrick, who says Finch has been a “good friend and a good engine customer” through the years, scoffed at the idea that the single-car team is a satellite operation of his own four-team program and might be seen as a fifth entry for the 10-time championship group.

“Every car he runs, he owns,” Hendrick said of Finch. “Every motor he gets, he pays for.”

Phoenix Racing is a single-car operation in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, and has typically fielded cars for select events each season. The Spartanburg, S.C.-based team, which has purchased chassis and leased engines from Hendrick in the past, did compete in all 36 races in 2011, however, with four drivers.

Now that Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, has joined the No. 51 team, Hendrick said the change could result in a move to a more proven product as far as engines are concerned.

“In the past we’ve had some things we have wanted to run that weren’t proven and we gave him a discount maybe to run it,” Hendrick said of the association. “We haven’t even crossed that bridge this year. He may tell me he doesn’t want to run that. He might not want to try that at a discount.

“He’s done some things like that; he’s been a good partner to us. We’ve trained some pit crew guys over there. He’s always bought motors from us for his [Nationwide] cars and his Cup cars. He’s been one of my oldest and best customers. He’s willing to try things. If you said, ‘We’ve run it on the dyno but we don’t know if it’s going to make it in the race,’ ... I’m not sure he’s going to want to do that this year.”

Since 2006, NASCAR has allowed team owners to field no more than four full-time teams, with an exception for an organization that seeks to field a fifth car on a limited basis for an up-and-coming driver.

However, understanding that potential new team owners likely would require the services and products of those already firmly established in the sport, NASCAR allows those teams that have the ability to provide services – such as engines, chassis and even technical support – to continue to do so.

Owners cannot receive financial consideration based on the performance of those cars to which they provide services, and they may not have an ownership stake in the team or teams. NASCAR can ask to look at contracts and other financial documentation that show the pricing is legitimate.

Organizations such as Hendrick, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing (through its Roush Yates Engines group) provide such assistance, at a price. In return, in addition to any monetary profits (such as any vendor would receive) such programs can provide feedback and validation for the hardware being supplied.

Ken Howes, vice president of competition for Hendrick Motorsports said that there was “a more extensive program” with Phoenix Racing in 2011, but that for 2012, the engine lease program is the bulk of the affiliation.

“The cars that they will use, most of their inventory of cars they bought from us,” Howes said. “So they will maintain them; we will probably repair them if and when they need it but that’s really the extent of it. They will just be leasing motors from us.”

Howes said he wouldn’t call Phoenix a satellite organization of Hendrick.

“What do they call Stewart-Haas Racing?” he asked. “Our agreement with Phoenix is less than our agreement with Stewart-Haas Racing. They (SHR) buy chassis from us, engines, and we have quite a close technical connection with them.

“If Phoenix is a satellite team then I don’t know what you’d call Stewart-Haas.”

In Howes' eyes, “they are just a customer and they happen to have a good driver this year. We expect life to probably be difficult [for us] some days.”

Hendrick said such deals “go on all the time” in the sport as owners without major resources attempt to compete within the constraints of a much smaller budget. Providing options can allow them to put their efforts where they feel they are most likely to be beneficial.

“If I tell you, ‘here are two motors, one of them is $100,000 and one of them is $50,000. The $50,000 one might not make it but we want to try it. We’ll give you a discount.’ That goes on all the time,” he said. “Our deal with Tony Stewart and those guys, they pay us and pay us well for what they get.

“There’s a lot of other stuff that goes on in the garage they need to check before they start looking at me.”

Phoenix Racing is attracting more attention this year with Busch as its driver. Hendrick said despite rumors to the contrary, he did not “blackball” Busch after the former champion parted ways with Penske Racing.

“[Kurt] did call me and he asked me ‘Did you say you don’t want James to hire me?’" Hendrick said.

“I said, ‘Absolutely not. I’ve got no problem at all with you. I’ll tell James that,’ and I did. That’s exactly what I did. I called James and said ‘If somebody told you I had a problem with Kurt, that’s not true. I have no problem at all.’”

Hendrick said he doesn’t expect Finch to have issues with Busch, or vice versa. And, he said, he expects the team to be competitive.

“They’re not going to surprise me, but [Kurt’s] got something to prove, James has got something he wants to prove and I think that car’s going to run really well,” he said.