You would like Rick Hendrick, the genial NASCAR team owner whose
cars finished 1-2-3 on Sunday in one of the most dramatic
Daytona 500s ever. You would feel comfortable with him, even
though his dealerships generate $2.2 billion annually and make
him the biggest retail car dealer in the U.S. You would
certainly feel for him, if not because he's facing a possible
210-year prison sentence should he be convicted of federal
money-laundering charges, then because he's suffering from a
rare form of leukemia.
"It didn't matter which of us finished first, second or third,"
said Jeff Gordon, the Hendrick driver who took the checkered
flag just ahead of teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven, "so
long as we finished 1-2-3 for Rick." It was an unprecedented
achievement in NASCAR racing and the first time a team had swept
the top three spots in a major auto race since 1982, when
Porsche finished ein-zwei-drei in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Hendrick, 47, comes from the farmlands near South Hill, Va.,
where as a kid he turned wrenches on his daddy's tractors. In
1976 he bought his first dealership, in Dentsville, S.C., and
kept expanding throughout the southeast and across the country
until his empire reached its current total of 89 shops. That
includes 18 Honda franchises, the source of Hendrick's legal
troubles. In December he was indicted by a federal grand jury in
Asheville, N.C., for allegedly giving bribes to Honda officials
to ensure that he had a steady supply of cars even when other
American dealers faced shortages. The indictments came down two
days before Hendrick was to be honored at NASCAR's awards
banquet in New York City as owner of the Labonte and Gordon
teams that finished one-two, respectively, in the '96 Winston
Cup championship series.
The timing of the indictments seemed calculated for maximum
political gain, Hendrick's outraged friends in the racing
community said, but Hendrick's party had already been spoiled. A
month earlier he learned that he had chronic myelogenous
leukemia. Soon thereafter he found out there's no match in his
family for the bone marrow transplant he needs to fight it.
Last Thursday some of Hendrick's friends--including Roger
Penske, whose cars have won 10 Indy 500s; Joe Gibbs, the Super
Bowl coach turned NASCAR team owner; Bill France Jr., the
president of NASCAR; and Dale Earnhardt, seven-time Winston Cup
champion--stood under a press tent in the Daytona infield making
an appeal to fans to register as potential bone marrow donors.
Hendrick, for his part, has contributed money to the National
Bone Marrow Donor Registry and is looking into setting up a
foundation to aid the efforts of that organization. On Sunday,
even though he was suffering from a cold--something you don't
want to have when your immune system is on the ropes--he said on
the phone from his home near Charlotte, "I hope we'll help some
poor folks who need marrow transplants to save their lives."
With his plight as subtext and with 11 of the 200 laps left in
the race on Sunday, his triumvirate of drivers came to the fore
as if drawn by fate. The key moment occurred when Gordon tried
to overtake Earnhardt for second place and the privilege of
pressuring leader Bill Elliott. Gordon charged low into Turn 2
and came back up into the middle of the track as he entered the
straightaway. Earnhardt, who was trying to avoid going 0 for 19
in stock car racing's premier event, stayed high coming out of
the turn and scraped the retaining wall. Gordon's Chevy survived
a sideswipe from Earnhardt's car and continued on, but an
onrushing pair of former Daytona 500 winners, Dale Jarrett and
Ernie Irvan, couldn't keep from ramming Earnhardt's car and
flipping it. Suddenly it was rolling over and over down the
With Earnhardt, Jarrett and Irvan--three of the prerace
favorites--out of the picture, Labonte and Craven magically
appeared up close and cozy in Gordon's mirror. "I'm sitting
there on the restart, and I've got Bill Elliott in front of me
and my two teammates sitting behind me," said Gordon. "That was
a sign. A good sign."
During the preceding week's qualifying and preliminary races,
the word had been that as a result of NASCAR's new rules on rear
spoilers and bodywork, some mysterious aerodynamics had come
into play. Drivers needed more help--from two or more cars--to
create a draft, to "push" them when they made a run at passing
another car. At precisely the time Gordon needed such aid the
most, up came his stablemates, Labonte and Craven. "With three
Hendrick cars behind you, you ain't got a chance," Elliott said
when all was done. "I was dead meat, and I knew it. It was just
a matter of when and where."
The when came on the 194th lap. "I turned my radio to Terry's
channel," Gordon said after the race, "and I told him, 'Terry,
it would be pretty neat if we could get these three Hendrick
cars by Elliott.' Terry said, 'Yeah, that'd be neat. I'll be
with you.' I turned to Ricky's channel and said, 'Terry's going
with me. Who you going with?' Ricky said, 'I'm going with you.'"
The where came on Turn 1. Elliott was still ahead, but Gordon
was being shoved along by enormous blasts of air from the
3,400-pound vehicles of his teammates, who were lined up behind
him. "I had a ton of momentum from Terry and Ricky," Gordon
said. "Bill knew I was going low. But I kept going lower and
lower to see just how low he wanted to go to block me. Hey, I
would've gone down by the people cooking out in the infield if
that's what it took. I was going by, no matter what."
As Gordon plunged left, his teammates veered right, high onto
the banked turn. "Bill didn't know who to block--them or me,"
Gordon said. The Hendrick drivers all flew past Elliott, and
that was that, especially when a multicar crash on lap 196
caused the race to end under caution.
Just before that pileup, Earnhardt, uninjured in his rollover,
climbed out of an ambulance and back into his crushed car to
finish the race and pick up whatever Winston Cup points he
could. "When it was all over, I saw this mangled black car come
driving up," said Gordon, who at 25 became the youngest driver
to win the Daytona 500, "and I was like, Uh-oh, what's he gonna
say?" But Earnhardt, 45, "gave me a thumbs-up and then one of
these," and Gordon flashed the O.K. sign.
The usually gruff Earnhardt, who was recently rated by a
NASCAR-appointed panel of experts as the greatest stock car
driver ever, said only that Gordon might have been "a little
impatient" in their showdown.
After the race Hendrick team manager Ray Evernham got on the
phone to his employer. "Hey, Boss," Evernham said. "You said all
we had to do was finish 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500. What's my next
Said a clearly weakened Hendrick, "You're gonna have to run the
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID MILLS/THE LAKELAND LEDGER A Nose Job Robert Pressley really took off down the backstretch duringSunday's Daytona 500. Fortunately he was not injured (page 32). [Robert Pressley in airborne racecar--T of C]
COLOR PHOTO: WENDY HOWLAND/DAYTONA BEACH NEWS JOURNAL After hitting the wall, Earnhardt (3) was clipped by Irvan (28) and flipped, setting the stage for Team Hendrick. [Dale Earnhardt's racecar in crash, and Ernie Irvan's racecar in background]