HAMPTON, Ga. - Yesterday, five days after losing 10 friends and business associates, the Rick Hendrick Motorsports drivers came to work looking like ghosts. Their distress showed in pale skin and sad, tired eyes, but the positive attitude that has made the organization the most successful team in NASCAR racing over the past 10 years surfaced.
"I've never been so inspired and driven in my life," said Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's four-time champion in the series now called the Nextel Cup. "This is an important weekend for us for so many different reasons, but I can't think of anything that could drive us harder and stronger than this loss.
"I think that instead of this being something that's a negative, we're going to take [it] and make something positive out of it and try to do our jobs better than we ever have before."
Nextel Cup drivers Gordon, Terry Labonte, Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson and Busch Series driver Kyle Busch joined their crew chiefs and fellow Cup driver Tony Stewart in the media center at Atlanta Motor Speedway for what they called "a remembrance."
They sat on hard kitchen-type stools, held microphones that appeared unusually heavy and faced the media.
"We know there are a lot of eyes on us," said Johnson.
They were there to talk, this one time, about the impact of the Hendrick Motorsports' plane crash Sunday in the Virginia mountains that devastated the family and business of car owner Rick Hendrick.
Killed were Hendrick's son Ricky, 24, his brother John, 53 and the company president, and John Hendrick's 22-year-old twin daughters. Also lost were Hendrick Motorsports general manager Jeff Turner, the team's engine program director Randy Dorton, DuPont executive Joe Jackson, Stewart's pilot Scott Lathram and two Hendrick pilots.
"We've got to dig a little deeper - for the families who are grieving and for those looking down on us," said Gordon.
Already Hendrick Motorsports is recharging. Patrick Perkins, Hendrick's director of marketing, said after the first day of shock and grief the more than 450 employees went back to work.
"The organization has been structured very deep," said Perkins. "Rick has assembled some of the best talent in the business. Ken Howes is director of competition from the car side, and Jeff Andrews, who worked closely with Randy, has stepped up on the engine side."
Scott Lampe, the company's controller, and Perkins are filling Turner's general manager duties, while Hendrick has asked his longtime business associate and confidant, Bobby Rice, to oversee the day-to-day business operation in his absence.
Johnson expressed the team's sorrow, "Right now, we're just going through the motions, just getting through it. It hurts so bad just being a friend of all these people. I can't imagine being a family member."
Every word was spoken with difficulty. Vickers, a rookie who turned 21 last Sunday and was a close friend of Ricky Hendrick, was having the hardest time controlling his emotions.
"I want to say last Sunday was a sad day for a lot of people," Vickers began, his voice unsteady. "Obviously, I lost a dear friend. They'll all be deeply missed for a long time to come, until we all get a chance to see them again."
And then he ducked his face beneath his baseball cap and quietly cried through most of the session.
But as sad as it was, as Johnson's chin quivered as he glanced at Vickers beside him, it was the first step toward getting on with their lives.
"People do amazing things in times like these," Johnson said. "I think that's what sticks out in my mind. That, and we have work to do."
By the time they were finished, the impression left was one of resolve.
"I think they're through the hardest part," said Cup driver Kevin Harvick, who as a rookie in 2001 was dropped into Dale Earnhardt's driver's seat when the seven-time champion was killed in the Daytona 500. "I think they've got a goal in their minds, and I think they're going to try hard to achieve it."
The goal is another championship for Hendrick. Gordon and Johnson are in The Chase, the final 10-race segment that will determine the 2004 Nextel Cup champion. With four races to go, Gordon is within 96 points of leader Kurt Busch and Johnson is within 207.
"It's going to take everyone a little while, but this team is going to be stronger than it's ever been," said two-time champion Labonte. "I think it's going to be our way of being determined, to work together to try to get Hendrick Motorsports another championship and Rick Hendrick another championship and do it around all those people we've lost because if we didn't do that, they would be mad at us."
At Hendrick Motorsports, doing the job well is the organization's most familiar calling card.
Others may wonder how these teams could possibly be better down the stretch after losing the bulk of their leadership, but not car owner Ray Evernham, who was Gordon's crew chief for his first three titles at Hendrick's.
"There are a lot of good people at Hendrick," he said. "They've got a lot of depth and they'll all hold hands and get through it.
"That's why that organization is what it is, and that's the kind of philosophy Rick has instilled in everybody. Come hell or high water, somehow they'll get through this and they'll be champions."