Slow restart for Hendrick

Owner: The man who built Winston Cup's dominant team is thrilled to be back after serving a criminal sentence and fighting leukemia, but he isn't yet up to speed.

February 14, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Rick Hendrick walked slowly down pit road before the Twin 125-mile qualifying races Thursday. Every two steps he was stopped and hugged -- by car owners, Winston Cup officials and his drivers.

Around him, cameras flashed and reporters jostled. This was Hendrick's first extended appearance here in two seasons.

Today, he will watch his drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Wally Dallenbach -- contend for the Daytona 500 for the first time since receiving a diagnosis of leukemia in November 1996 and being placed under house arrest in December 1997. He was sentenced as punishment for his involvement in the American Honda Motor Co. bribery and kickback scandal.

Hendrick, whose Winston Cup cars have won four consecutive championships, entered a plea bargain and was found guilty on one count of mail fraud.

"I'm not going to talk about the Honda stuff," Hendrick said. "That's history. But I'll talk about coming back to auto racing all you want."

He is heavier, moves with deliberation, and his breathing, at times, is labored. But Hendrick's smile is strong, and he is obviously happy.

"I love this sport," he said. "All I ever wanted to do was race. You don't know what it meant -- to have to be away so long, and now what it means to be back."

In Hendrick's absence, Gordon's race team won back-to-back Winston Cup championships and in 1997, the outfit's cars made history by finishing 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500.

"As I think of it," said Labonte, who has never won the 500 in 20 attempts and finished second to Gordon in 1997, "Jeff winning and the rest of us finishing 2-3 was one of the best feelings I've ever felt. I didn't win, but our team's cars finished 1-2-3 right after Rick was diagnosed with leukemia. It made you feel good."

As Hendrick, 50, walks with deliberate steps, looking like a man who has been ill, his brother, John, watches with concern. It was John who stepped into the void, becoming president of Hendrick Motorsports and keeping his brother informed of what his teams were doing.

What his teams were doing was amazing. Not missing a beat, Gordon won back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, to bring Hendrick's championship seasons to an unprecedented four straight. This year, Dallenbach has been added to the mix.

Though new to the scene, Dallenbach senses Hendrick's personal impact.

"Rick's pretty much the glue that holds these teams together," Dallenbach said. "I came in, dealing primarily with John [Hendrick]. When Rick came back, it was business as usual, but on a personal level Rick generates a different feeling. It's, somehow, a comfortable feeling."

Gordon said the first priority of all three teams is to get Hendrick to victory lane in today's 500.

"Most of the motivation for our success has come from Rick," Gordon said. "It's very exciting to see him back. Last year, our goal was to win the championship and take Rick, mentally, to victory lane with us every time we won a race. But he wasn't there physically. I know how much he wanted to be there, and me and Terry and Wally are hoping that one of us can take him there [today]."

For so long, Rick could only experience the excitement second-hand, as his brother recounted the action over the phone after races. John would send him reports on the teams and saw to it that Rick also got reports from his Honda dealerships, so he could keep up with what his businesses were doing. Rick also personally answered every card and letter from fans and other cancer patients who wrote to him for help and support.

Still, sitting on the sidelines was far from what it used to be. Rick Hendrick had always been on the go. He was the kind of man who would work all day and then wake up at 2 a.m. and work two more hours, writing down five pages of business ideas on a legal pad before returning to sleep. And even after Dr. Steven Limentani of Charlotte, N.C., diagnosed the leukemia in November 1996 and the debilitating treatments started the next February, Hendrick continued to work long hours in his office, running his Honda and motorsports empires.

It wasn't until the court sentence in late December 1997, which mandated he not be involved in the day-to-day operations and decision-making processes of either of those businesses, that he finally settled into a structured existence in which his health was his focus.

"No one wants to be in Rick's position," said John Hendrick. "But I think that conviction certainly helped save his life. It forced him to define his life. Look at him now, he's already pushing himself and the medication he's on has huge side effects. My biggest job now is to keep the pace down."

Last weekend, Hendrick was here for qualifying and saw Gordon win the pole. He enjoyed the celebration, then worn out, flew back home to Charlotte, where he stayed until returning here Thursday.

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