Rick Hendrick was a car owner with a fading dream when he went to church with his wife 25 years ago as his team prepared to race at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.
When he emerged, life as he knew it would never be the same.
Geoff Bodine, the driver who ached for an opportunity to race, and Harry Hyde, the mechanical whiz who convinced Hendrick he could build a winning race car, had proven it at the track in southwest Virginia, giving the car dealer his first NASCAR victory as an owner.
There have been 174 more victories since, as well as eight Sprint Cup Series championships, making Hendrick one of the dominant figures in a sport he almost abandoned.
“Had we not won that race 25 years ago, Hendrick Motorsports would not be here today,” Hendrick said this week.
“A couple of weeks before, we were going to have to shut the team down because we had no sponsor,” Hendrick said. “I told Harry we absolutely were going to quit two races before that. And we went on and won Martinsville and picked up enough help to make it through the year.”
It helped that Bodine won twice more before the season was finished, and Hendrick was on his way.
“In some ways, it feels like it was yesterday, and then you look back at all the drivers and the people that have been involved, and it feels like it was a long time ago,” Hendrick said.
Those early years included some of the biggest names in racing: Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd.
Now, he boasts four of the biggest names in the racing – Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion; Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the past three championships; Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in the series; and Mark Martin, who came on board for this season.
“I think that everyone that works for him wants to succeed for him,” Martin said.
Martin drives the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick, the same number car that Bodine drove into Victory Lane back in 1984, and would like to take the checkered flag today for Hendrick.
But he’ll have to get past his teammates who have dominated the 0.526-mile oval. Gordon has seven wins here and Johnson has five, including four of the last five races.
For all the good memories at Martinsville, the track is also a reminder of perhaps Hendrick’s darkest day. In October 2004, son Ricky, brother John and eight others were killed when a Hendrick plane crashed on fog-shrouded Bull Mountain nearby.
Hendrick, a native of Palmer Springs, Va., who grew up coming to races at the track, said he can’t fly over Bull Mountain on a clear day without looking for the 14-foot cross placed at the crash site.
And he always asks himself if he wants to be at the track on race day.
“And then, when I start thinking about it, it’s tougher being at home than it is being there, too, because it’s just then that you know you should be there with them,” Hendrick said.
The truck race scheduled for Saturday at Martinsville Speedway was postponed because of steady rain and has been rescheduled for noon Monday.
Rick Crawford won the pole during morning qualifying in a light drizzle, but the rain increased in intensity as the 2 p.m. starting time approached. It was called an hour later.
Crawford won the pole with a lap at 94.737 mph in his Ford. He’ll start on the inside of the front row with Shane Sieg to his outside. Sieg’s lap was at 94.326 mph in his Toyota.
The top five also includes Johnny Benson, Ron Hornaday Jr. and Colin Braun.
Next in line are Kevin Harvick, Max Papis, Matt Crafton, Mike Skinner and Timothy Peters.
The pole is the sixth for Crawford in 301 career truck series starts, and he was not concerned with the prospect of seeing it postponed as the rain fell throughout the day.
“I don’t mind not racing if nobody else gets to,” he said.
The 0.526-mile oval does not have lights and can’t support night racing.
The Goody’s 500 Sprint Cup race is scheduled today at the track.
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