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Rick hendrick is tired. He was up late last night at an NFL game in Charlotte--the woman sitting next to him wouldn't stop talking about how polite Hendrick's son, Ricky, had been the times he'd sat in his father's seat--and now, on a Tuesday morning in early October, he's being bull-rushed by memories of the accident. Sitting in a conference room at Hendrick Motorsports, he closes his eyes and allows it all to come back to him: the horror of the first phone call almost exactly a year ago; the roiling pain of having four family members and six friends die; the what-ifs that still haunt his thoughts.
"If I had been on that plane," he says, "things might be different. Maybe my brother doesn't get on. Then maybe his daughters don't get on. Maybe Ricky.... I can't.... I ... gotta stop doing that."
Now it's noon on this bright day in Concord, N.C., and the 56-year-old Hendrick, the most successful owner in NASCAR over the past decade, is walking onto a stage at his headquarters. Almost all of the 550 people who work in Hendrick's race shop--engineers, crew chiefs, drivers--are sitting in this large room, eating chicken and hamburgers, as Hendrick grabs a microphone. The room quiets. Hendrick gazes out above the audience to a line of photos on the far wall, the faces of the 10 people who were lost in the fog at Bull Mountain in Virginia. He looks at the floor, takes a deep breath, then raises his head, and suddenly all the fatigue, all the sadness that was etched on his face ... disappear. He beams as he talks about the people in the room helping one another through the tragedy, becoming as close as family. This is why, he says, Jimmie Johnson, the only Hendrick driver in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, has an edge over the other contenders.
"We have one goal, and that's to get the 48 team the title," Hendrick says, referring to Johnson's car. "We're all going to work together--all our teams. This is where we have an advantage. We've been through tough times. We're close, and we share everything.... Rusty [Wallace] and Ryan [Newman] won't do that. The Roush teams won't do that. We will."
When Hendrick steps off the stage, everyone claps as if at a pep rally. That's when it dawns on a visitor: Rick Hendrick, the man who must carry the heaviest heart in sports, is making the comeback of his career.
one year ago this Sunday, Hendrick was driving alone in his black 2004 BMW X5 through the treelined streets of south Charlotte. He'd just had lunch with his wife, Linda, at Harper's, one of their favorite restaurants, and was headed across town to see his mother, Mary. Hendrick had considered flying on his private plane to the Cup race in Martinsville, Va., which was to begin in a few minutes but had opted to spend the morning with Linda and then visit Mary, who was still grieving the loss of her husband, Rick's dad, Papa Joe Hendrick, who had died 14 weeks earlier at age 84.
Hendrick pulled onto Seven Eagles Road, thinking what a beautiful fall day it was. Life itself was beautiful for Hendrick: Two of his drivers, Johnson and Jeff Gordon, were battling for the Cup championship. Rick's only son, 24-year-old Ricky, was overseeing a successful Busch Series team. Rick and Ricky were inseparable--they were building adjacent new offices--and Rick took comfort in knowing that soon Ricky would ascend the throne of the Hendrick empire, which includes five Cup teams, one Busch team and 60 car dealerships.
Rick didn't know it, but that morning Ricky had boarded a plane at Concord Regional Airport to go to Martinsville--the same plane that Rick would have taken. Rick's brother, John, the president of Hendrick Motorsports, was also on board, along with his 22-year-old twin daughters, Kimberly and Jennifer. Also with them were one of Rick's best friends and his lead engine builder, Randy Dorton; his general manager, Jeff Turner; an executive with DuPont, Hendrick's top sponsor, Joe Jackson; a pilot for driver Tony Stewart, Scott Lathram; and two Hendrick Motorsports pilots, Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison.
Hendrick continued to drive. Just before 1 p.m. his cellphone rang. It was Ken Howes, the team's director of competition. He told Hendrick to pull over immediately. "Rick," said Howes, "we've got a plane missing. That's all we know right now."
"Oh, my God," said Hendrick. "Who's on it?"