Hendrick, team keep faith for new season

Auto racing: Heading into Daytona, it's plain last fall's tragedy failed to put the brakes on the famed organization's drive.

Auto Racing

DAYTONA 500: Next Sunday, 1 p.m., Ch. 45

February 13, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Perhaps nothing more clearly reflects the new beginning at Hendrick Motorsports than finding Nextel Cup car owner Rick Hendrick in a big, beautiful new office, in a big, beautiful new building in his racing compound.

"My dad and son used to wear me out about getting this building done," said Hendrick, recalling his father, Papa Joe, who died last summer, and his son, Ricky, who was killed in a company plane crash near Martinsville, Va., last fall.

In the crash, Hendrick, 55, also lost his brother, John, who was the company president; nieces Jennifer and Kimberly; company engine department director Randy Dorton; and team vice president and general manager Jeff Turner.

"You can't change what happened," Hendrick said. "If you believe in God having a plan for you from the day you were born, then you have to keep your faith. I just have to accept it and know I'll understand it one day when I see them all again."

Meanwhile, the directive from the comfortable, but not plush office that has yet to see the presence of family photos, is the same as it has always been.

"We want championships," Hendrick said. "That's our objective."

Hendrick spent Thanksgiving with his family at his Florida home and went fishing. He spent Christmas in Charlotte, allowing his 2-year-old granddaughter, Kate, to bring smiles to his face.

Now, the new season is here and Hendrick comes to his team's garages every day.

"He's very engaged," said Marshall Carlson, 32, Hendrick's son-in-law and his new general manager. "His faith is so strong, and it has been that faith, family and friends that have carried all of us at Hendrick Motorsports."

Everyone here is quick to say those lost can't be replaced, but they also say this is still a championship team.

"We sure don't need people making excuses for us," Hendrick said. "I can't tell you we're not going to miss Jeff Turner and Ricky and the others or that we've not all been tremendously upset. But all the folks we need are here. If we don't do well, it will be because someone outperformed us. We can't blame this year on what happened in October."

Carlson, who has been underfoot in Hendrick's garages since he was a teenager sweeping out the shop and dating Hendrick's daughter, Lynn, in high school, knows his father-in-law's business from the ground up.

"I've known Marshall for a long time," said driver Jeff Gordon. "He's been around the family and the sport for a million years. He's a go-getter who gets things done."

"Choosing Marshall, well, he has some big shoes to fill, but that guy can fill them. He's sharp, and he has a lot of energy. I know he has to be feeling the pressure, but I know he has a tremendous amount of experience, that he knows the philosophy and will do a great job."

Hendrick has won five Cup titles, including four in a row - 1995-1998. Four of those championships came with Gordon, who is part of a team that also includes Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte, who will run a limited schedule this season, and Brian Vickers.

Carlson describes the need to succeed not as pressure, but as inspiration.

"Our mission is to continue the success of the Hendrick teams," he said.

"We have a deep pool of talent, all willing to step up to the challenge. All of us look around every day and wonder where the other guys are. We know we will never replace any of those people. But each of us will fill in some of the holes.

"To this point, we've filled very well because we've all been passionate. It's a hallmark of this organization. We've always raced with passion and, in our organization, we're all passionate about each other."

The work began last October, immediately after the plane crash. The Hendrick teams did not miss a race. When Atlanta rolled around the next week, every Hendrick driver and crewman was there. Wiping away tears, they said they were there not only to compete, but to win.

`Awe-inspiring'

When Johnson won that Sunday, he said: "We know this doesn't change anything. It won't give us back the people we've lost. But for the first time since the accident, it will bring a smile to all the people at Hendrick Motorsports."

Carlson called the Hendrick teams' performances last fall "awe-inspiring."

A win at the track, he said, "trickled down through every level of our organization."

Now, they are at Daytona, where the front-row starting positions for next Sunday's 500 will be determined today.

And they are ready for what Gordon hopes will be the beginning of a year that brings him his fifth Cup title, for what Johnson hopes will be the year that brings him his first championship and for what the whole team hopes will be a season to be proud of.

"Just getting to Daytona is a testament in itself," said Gordon. "It says how together we are. Everyone has continued to move forward with inspiration and the same common goal. Nothing has slowed down. Rick, none of us expected him to be back into this so soon. But the guy has a tremendous ability to pull things off like this.

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