Rick Hendrick returns to track for first time since plane crash

by Pete McCole

November 20, 2004

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Rick Hendrick at Homestead
CIA Stock Photo

For the first time since the tragic Oct. 24 plane crash that claimed the lives of his son, brother and two nieces, Rick Hendrick returned to the racetrack to support his drivers as they vie for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Hendrick has been in seclusion since the accident, which also killed Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Jeff Turner and chief engine builder Randy Dorton as well as four others after the plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports slammed into a Virginia mountainside while trying to land at the airport near Martinsville Speedway.

Hendrick briefly spoke to the media, thanking everyone for supporting him and his family during the last few weeks, including Kyle Petty, whose son Adam was killed during a Busch Series practice session in 2000.

"We spent time together. He knows exactly what I'm going through," Hendrick said. "One of the things Kyle said that meant a lot to me was, 'You know there are 365 days in a year and there are 38 checkered flags.' The rest of the time we're all together here in buses and planes and on pit road. You spend more time with these folks in this garage than you do your own family. When somebody hurts, everybody hurts. It's been very obvious to my family and to me that everybody has been hurting with us and have sure been there to support us."

It has been a painful few weeks for Hendrick and his wife Linda in dealing with the loss of their son Ricky, who co-owned Kyle Busch's Busch Series team and Brian Vickers' Nextel Cup operation. Hendrick spent most of Saturday atop the pit box in Busch's pit, cheering on the 19-year-old driver.

"I don't know how Brain Vickers, as close as he and Ricky were, could get in a car," Hendrick said. "I don't know how Jeff or Jimmie could do what they've done, or the crew chiefs or the tire changers. I know Kyle Busch and Ricky were awfully tight. Some of you don't know that. He was his spotter, his owner, his big brother and his friend. That kid wanted to win those two races extremely bad. I apologize for him when he got out of the car if he didn't stop and answer questions. I know where his heart was. He's 19 years old. I'm awful proud of him. He's a good boy."

Although Hendrick has been in seclusion since the crash, his team hasn't slowed down, thanks in part to the tremendous organization Hendrick has built, an organization that recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. On Sunday, Hendrick will once again climb atop the pit box and watch as two of his four drivers battle for the Nextel Cup.

"If you look at this year, it's been one of the best and one of the worst at the same time," Hendrick said. "I'm proud of the organization. We had a job to do and the organization had a job to do and they showed up at Atlanta. They raced and we were fortunate enough to win. Everybody in that organization, 450 strong, stepped up. It wasn't one. It wasn't two. It was 450 people that just really, really stepped up. Our guys are champions no matter what happens tomorrow because of what they've been through. They've had a tough time. I couldn't have done it."

Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson will be one of the drivers trying for a chance to win the title on Sunday. He trails point's leader Kurt Busch by 18 points while teammate Jeff Gordon trails by 24 points.

"I'm excited for him to be at the track, but I also know how difficult it's going to be for him," Johnson said. "When we first came to the track it was not an easy thing. I know this weekend is going to be tough for him. It's a big step in the direction of trying to find some normalcy back at the race track."

Although Hendrick didn't take any questions on Saturday, he did his best to answer the question foremost on everyone's mind - how does Hendrick Motorsports continue on from here?

"What's going to happen at Hendrick Motorsports? We're going to honor those people by going on," Hendrick said. "I can't replace my family and I can't replace people like Randy Dorton and Jeff Turner but what our company has always done is we're a strong group, a lot of people with back up that are committed. The way we close those holes is together each one of us picks up pieces.

"We'll not ever replace them but we're all going to pick up the pieces and we're doing that right now. I'm so proud of what our people have done in the face of all of this to give me strength and give each other strength to go ahead. We've all kind of banned together. You don't think you can get through it but again with faith, and friends and family you can do it."

The author can be contacted petem@autoracing1.com

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