the only reason Rick Hendrick got into NASCAR was because of a high-speed accident. Growing up on a tobacco farm in southern Virginia, he'd fallen in love with race cars. As a teenager racing his '31 Ford over the country roads, Rick was rarely beaten. He wanted to become a professional racer, but his mother thought the sport was too dangerous, so she forbade him to pursue it. Rick found another way to get his speed fix: drag boat racing. By 1982 he'd won three national titles, but that year, in Lynchfield, Ill., a friend of his, Jimmy Wright, was racing in one of Hendrick's boats when he lost control. The boat slammed into a bank, and Wright was killed. "I lost my passion for the sport that day," says Hendrick. "I was done after Jimmy died."
After he walked away from boat racing, Hendrick, who was becoming a successful car dealer, turned to stock cars. In 1984, operating out of a small boat shed north of Charlotte, he started a NASCAR team. "We didn't have a sponsor and only had five people working on the car," he recalls. "I didn't think we'd make it."
But in only his eighth Cup start as an owner, Hendrick reached Victory Lane at his home track: Martinsville. The .526-mile oval in the foothills of the Appalachians is only 50 miles from the Hendrick family farm. After that win Hendrick signed his first major sponsor, and his victories began to multiply. Since then he has won five Cup titles (four with Gordon and one with Terry Labonte) and revolutionized the sport by originating the multicar team.
"Rick continues to amaze me," says Gordon. "Even going through this tragedy, he's been making sure that everyone else is O.K. He'll never look at life the same, but he's getting through this."
"I am getting through this," says Hendrick. "It was such an unbelievable event that you wonder if you'll ever get your spark back. I don't know if I will. But I know I miss them all more today than I did the day it happened. Not a minute goes by that I don't think about all of them on the plane."
at 12:24 p.m. last Oct. 24 Hendrick's Beech 200 King Air, a twin-engine propeller plane, was cleared to land in fog at Martinsville's Blue Ridge Airport. According to a National Transportation Safety Board report, at 12:33 p.m. the pilots radioed the tower to say they had overshot the runway. No further word came from the plane, but later that day the wreckage of the King Air was found on Bull Mountain, 10 miles from Blue Ridge Airport and 20 miles from the Martinsville track. There were no survivors.
That evening, after Johnson won the Subway 500 at Martinsville, he and Gordon and another Hendrick driver, Brian Vickers, went to Hendrick's house in Charlotte. "We just had to be there with him and Linda," says Johnson. "The house was full of friends. I don't think Mr. Hendrick realized how many people care about him."
For a long time Hendrick didn't want to return to the track or even watch a race. The memories were too painful, especially the one of seeing his boy light up as if it were his birthday every time the engines roared. But a teary-eyed Hendrick attended the final race of last season, at Homestead, and he has been to several races this year, including last Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte.
An hour before the race Hendrick joined his five drivers for a photo shoot. His son's former fianc�e, Emily--who in June gave birth to the couple's daughter, whom she named Ricki--stood nearby in the infield as a smiling Hendrick exchanged hugs with his drivers. This, he said, is how he has endured. "Everyone at Hendrick is my family," he said. "They're the reason I'm still going to the racetrack. It's all because of them."
And if Johnson takes the title--he won Saturday's crash-filled race and is now tied with Stewart for the points lead--it'll all be because of Rick Hendrick.