Saturday July 20th, 2024 9:03AM

DAYTONA 500: Rick Hendrick celebrats 40th season; makes plans for future

By Jenna Fryer AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — They were supposed to be mini footballs. At least that is what Rick Hendrick envisioned for a team-building exercise ahead of the 40th anniversary of NASCAR’s winningest team.

Well, the boss pays attention to details, and so the staffer tasked with the purchase figured 700 game-regulation balls at a cost of $14,000 would be sufficient.

Hendrick was a bit surprised. Then he was moved by how they were received at Hendrick Automotive, which in two years celebrates its 50th anniversary, and by everyone at Hendrick Motorsports.

All 700 were claimed over two separate luncheons as Hendrick and wife Linda stood before his employees and asked if any were willing to “carry the ball” and ensure his namesake businesses would thrive well into the future.

Hendrick's only son, Ricky, was among 10 people killed in a 2004 plane crash en route to a race in Virginia. Now 74 years old, his season-long NASCAR celebration has made him both reflective and focused on what will become of his companies. He talked to The Associated Press about founding NASCAR teams that are now long extinct and his fear of that happening to the greatest team the sport has ever seen.

“I've said it over and over that people are your biggest asset, and let's go conquer the world, and I thought that if I was one of those five- or 10-year people, I'd like to hear what's going to happen in the next 50 years,” Hendrick told the AP. "'Are you going to sell it when something happens to you? Are you going to go public? What are you going to do?'

“And so I told them, ‘Where this is going to be is in my family in the next 50, and it is going to be private, and we’re going forward, and all these young people are going to take the baton.' And I've never had such a response from our people."

Hendrick Motorsports made its NASCAR debut at the 1984 Daytona 500 with Geoffrey Bodine, who finished eighth. On the verge of shutting down just seven races into the season, Hendrick was persuaded to go on to the next race, where Bodine's organization-saving win kept the doors open.

Two years later, Bodine gave Hendrick Motorsports the first of its eight Daytona 500 victories.

There have been Cup Series championships along the way with Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, most recently in 2021. Last year, Hendrick held half the championship field with finalists Larson and William Byron, but both were bested by Team Penske rival Ryan Blaney.

Hendrick is the only team owner with championships with five different drivers, and Johnson's run of five straight while tying the all-time record of seven is a NASCAR record. Hendrick Motorsports has a record 301 Cup victories.

There are 11 members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame — including Hendrick — who have ties to the Hendrick organization; Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were first-ballot inductees in January.

The official kickoff of the Hendrick anniversary year begins Sunday with the Daytona 500, a race Hendrick last won in 2014 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. The team had won the pole in eight of the last nine years, including three straight, before its streak ended in qualifying Wednesday night.

Hendrick Motorsports will run four special paint schemes at Martinsville on the anniversary of its first win. The team also is hosting a fan event Memorial Day weekend, when Larson will attempt to drive the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 500 double. It will be Hendrick's first entry in the Indy 500.

Gordon, a four-time champion and now vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, will someday run the organization alongside Jeff Andrews, the president and general manager. Hendrick said he has great faith in both leaders, as well as the deep employee loyalty built over four decades.

Gordon accepted a ball and felt the meaning Hendrick had hoped to deliver.

“The impact was really worth it, and you invest in certain things that sometimes mean a lot,” Gordon told the AP. “You see the balls sitting in offices and understand how impactful it was to so many people.”

Gordon said he is looking forward to a year of celebration but was most excited for the motivation it has created internally, as well as the pride both Rick and Linda Hendrick have felt in launching the anniversary year at the team-building lunch.

“Seeing the ability to include both Mr. and Mrs. H in stories that a lot of our newer employees don't know about, every day now when I walk through the halls, people are still stopping to talk about that day,” Gordon said. "He has a great way of leading his companies, but he also knows how to motivate people to take on a responsibility that they didn't even recognize they were capable of, something he certainly did for me.

“His faith in me and putting me in this position has changed my life in many ways. I've always had a relationship with him and the company, but now to truly feel like a partner and to build a closer relationship with him has been very special,” Gordon added. “I take that responsibility very seriously, and I am putting a ton of effort into it, and when he hands me that ball, then yeah, I want to deliver. I don't want to let him down.”

 

  • Associated Categories: NASCAR News, NASCAR Cup, SpeedWeeks
  • Associated Tags: nascar, Auto Racing, NASCAR Cup Series, Hendrick Motorsports, stock car racing
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