CONCORD, N.C. – Rick Hendrick never saw his first victory as a car owner in NASCAR. Instead of going to Martinsville, Va., to see his new team with driver Geoff Bodine, he and wife Linda went to church.
In 1984 there were no cell phones, so it wasn’t until after the Hendricks got home and heard from his mother Mary Hendrick that Bodine drove the No. 5 All-Star Racing Chevrolet to Victory Lane earlier in the day.
They celebrated by toilet-papering Bodine’s yard.
“Driving in that driveway and seeing the decorations was a lot of fun,” Bodine said. “We had a big laugh about that, and I think it was more of an impact than if we had been able to call them on the cell phone and tell them we won.”
Although he was late arriving, Hendrick was around for victory No. 200 last Saturday night at the Darlington Raceway when Jimmie Johnson won the Southern 500. There was no toilet paper, but there were plenty of fireworks, champagne, confetti and tears.
In between those two milestone wins were 10 championships, a lot of thrills and unthinkable pain.
“When something like this happens, it reminds me of when I won the first championship,” Hendrick said. “I never thought I’d ever get to win a championship. I never thought I’d get to race in NASCAR. I never thought I would win one.”
Over the past 29 years, 15 different drivers have contributed to the organization’s 200 wins. Jeff Gordon (85 wins) and Jimmie Johnson (56) did the bulk of the work, but everyone involved, past and present, felt personally connected to the wins count.
“Rick is that guy that doesn’t like to finish second, and he’ll do whatever takes to be No. 1, and that never stops,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t matter if you are on top of that mountain, people are trying to knock you down. He is always driving that passion to everyone around him that ‘let's keep it going.’
“Those people now believe in it themselves and they spread that throughout the company, and to me that the greatest sign of a true leader, a great leader, is when the people around you eat, breathe and sleep with it the way you do.”
Hendrick built his financial empire with more than 100 car dealerships around the country, but racing is his passion. He operates four teams with marquee drivers Gordon, Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. There have been no shortcuts to his success. He surrounds himself with quality people and he gives them the freedom to do their job.
“He under-commits and overproduces,” Bodine said. “He’s a handshake kind of guy, does what he says, and I think that’s a big key to his success. There’s a lot more, but in a nutshell, that’s the key to anybody’s success. If you can be trusted with your word and always do more than what you say you’re going to do, then you’re going to succeed in life. Rick certainly has done that.”
Gordon won Hendrick his first championship in 1995. Terry Labonte followed with a title in 1996, then Gordon came back to win in 1997, 1998 and 2001. Johnson had a run of five consecutive championships starting in 2006.
There was heartache, too. Tim Richmond drove for Hendrick for two years before dropping out with AIDS. Richmond eventually died of the disease in 1989.
A Hendrick-owned airplane crashed flying to Martinsville in 2004, killing the car owner’s son, Ricky, brother, John, two nieces and six others.
Hendrick himself survived a plane crash last year at Key West, Fla.
When the team won race No. 199 last October everyone was committed to getting Hendrick to No. 200 as quickly as possible. It took 17 races, but they finally got it, triggering a celebration that brought as much relief as satisfaction.
“My mind goes back to the early days of Hendrick Motorsports, the people that won the early races, worked on the early cars, helped Rick build Hendrick Motorsports to what it is today,” Johnson said. “I think of Harry Hyde, Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine, Kenny Schrader, a lot of people over the years that put a lot of time and effort and commitment into this organization. So I’m thinking of all those people.”
Like the first win, Hendrick never saw the start of the historic race. But unlike that Sunday afternoon in 1984, he was around for the finish.
“I was in the mountains at 8 at a wedding that I couldn't get out of,” Hendrick said. “Got here to see the last 100 laps. Glad it worked out.”
Hendrick now is second on NASCAR’s all-time victory list for car owners, 68 behind Petty Enterprises. There is little doubt the organization someday will catch, then pass Petty’s mark.
The celebration is certain to be enormous when it happens, but nothing as distinctive as toilet-papering a house.