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Car owner Rick Hendrick doing ‘whatever it takes’ to lead team back after recent struggles

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 - Practice

SPARTA, KY - JULY 08: Crew members work on the car of Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, after an incident during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on July 8, 2016 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — In the midst of the his organization’s longest winless drought in more than a decade, car owner Rick Hendrick joined his team at a recent wind tunnel test.

It is an odd place for a car owner to be. He’s not an engineer, so why would Hendrick even be there when maybe his time could be better used?

“If you ask guys to work 20 hours in a wind tunnel, being there to support, looking at the data with them, it shows I’m willing to do whatever it takes,’’ Hendrick said. “You’re right I’m not an engineer. I’ve made a living and grown in this sport … by being a servant leader and that means you’re there to support the rest of them. I’m accountable, and they’re accountable. We’ve kind of locked arms and everybody has pitched in.

“When you’re not doing well, you can walk away from it and point fingers or you can jump in it, and say ‘Let’s get with it.’ ’’

Jeff Gordon, who is driving Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car as Earnhardt recovers from a concussion, says he’s encouraged by what he’s seen from Hendrick.

“I’ve been so excited to see what Rick has been getting involved in the last couple of weeks,’’ Gordon said. “He’s lit a fire under everybody, and he’s excited about the direction that we’re headed.’’

Heading into today’s rain-delayed race at Bristol Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on CNBC), Hendrick Motorsports is winless in its last 17 races — it’s longest drought since 2001-02.

While a 17-race drought seems small compared to Richard Childress Racing (winless in 95 races) and Roush Fenway Racing (winless in 78 races), Hendrick Motorsports’ streak is eye-opening.

An organization that has won six of the last 10 Sprint Cup championships has not been able to match the sport’s top teams, particularly Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.

The last of Jimmie Johnson’s two victories this season came at Auto Club Speedway in March. In the last six races before Bristol, Hendrick Motorsports had scored one top-10 finish — a third-place finish by Jimmie Johnson at Indianapolis.

When Chase Elliott passed Denny Hamlin for the lead on Lap 9 Saturday night, it marked the first time a Hendrick Motorsports car had led a Cup race in more than a month. Johnson, who started on the pole last month at New Hampshire, led the opening lap and that was the last lap a Hendrick car had led until Saturday night.

Entering today’s rain-delayed race, Johnson is the only Hendrick driver assured a playoff spot. Elliott would make it on points at this time. Kasey Kahne is 11 points out of what would be the final transfer spot. Earnhardt has not raced since last month and is scheduled to see doctors this week. They’ll determine his status.

When today’s race resumes — 48 of 500 laps are completed — Elliott will restart second with Gordon eighth, Kahne 14th and Johnson 29th. Johnson is coming off a last-place finish at Watkins Glen. He’s placed outside the top 10 in 11 of the last 13 races, the worst stretch of his career.

“It hasn’t been a great year for us,’’ Johnson said earlier this weekend. “We won a couple of times early and showed some early season strength, and it’s been a tough summer. Nobody knows that more than us and we want to be better.

“Not only the team, but all of Hendrick Motorsports has been working really hard to get back to where we want to be. Fortunately there is time, and fortunately there is the Chase format. A lot can happen before the season is up.”

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