Hendrick Motorsports’ 40th anniversary celebration at Martinsville a fitting one

RICHMOND, Va. — Before Chase Elliott signed with Hendrick Motorsports at age 15 as a freshman in high school in 2011, he flew with his father to the team shop.

Elliott’s father, Bill, was nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career with one Cup title and 44 wins. He never drove for Hendrick Motorsports. 

“I had seen Rick around as a kid, but I can’t say I ever spoke to him or had any reason to talk to him,” Chase Elliott said. “But when those conversations started, I came up here one day after school, and Dad and I flew up here one afternoon.

“Rick picked us up personally at the airport and drove us over here. … and [showed us] the facility. I had no business doing that and he had much better things to worry about, so I appreciated that and that will always stick with me.”

Rick Hendrick likely would argue that he didn’t have better things to do. HMS didn’t field teams at the time in the NASCAR developmental series (Hendrick does have an ownership stake in JR Motorsports) but he obviously had a sense of the future of the sport.

Hendrick has excelled with his methodical leadership and ability to find the right talent for Hendrick Motorsports, which will use the upcoming Martinsville Speedway weekend to celebrate its 40th anniversary (2024 marks its 41st season).

Martinsville sits just a couple hours from where Hendrick grew up in Virginia and attended his first race. The memories go beyond attending races as a kid, as Martinsville played a pivotal role in Hendrick history as the site where Geoff Bodine won in April 1984 in what quite possibly could have been the last race for a financially strapped HMS at the time, a victory that Hendrick credits to keeping the team going at the urging of crew chief Harry Hyde.

“We were going to close before that, and Harry said let’s just run one more race, Geoff is really good there,” Hendrick said. “And [my wife] Linda and I were in church, so I wasn’t there that day, and we won the race.”

Chase Elliott reflects on his first visit with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011

Chase Elliott reflects on his first visit with Hendrick Motorsports in 2011

While Martinsville holds emotional memories for Hendrick, they aren’t all of happiness.

A Hendrick plane crashed on the way to the track on race day in 2004, killing all 10 people aboard: Hendrick’s son (Ricky), Hendrick’s brother (John), his brother’s two daughters (Kimberly and Jennifer), four Hendrick employees (team general manager Jeff Turner, head engine builder Randy Dorton and pilots Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison) and two passengers (Tony Stewart pilot Scott Lathram and DuPont executive Joe Jackson).

In the days and weeks following the crash, Hendrick provided the strength as the pillar that kept the organization focused on racing amid the grief. Despite its memories of the worst of times, few are surprised that Hendrick would want the 40th anniversary celebration at Martinsville.

“It covers both ends of the spectrum,” said Elliott crew chief Alan Gustafson, who started at HMS in 2000 as a shock specialist. “It’s super polarizing when you go from the success on track, the key to the company’s existence, and then the attachment with the airplane crash and tragedy and the pain and suffering that came with that.

“Regardless, when you go there, you don’t never forget either.”

Gustafson is the employee who epitomizes Hendrick Motorsports. He has worked 20 seasons as a crew chief, having won races with four different drivers. His presence proves that for those who perform and handle themselves well, Hendrick will continue to put them in positions to thrive.

“This is where you wanted to be,” Gustafson said about joining Hendrick decades ago. “I feel like their values of motorsports align with mine, and the that people present and carry themselves and treat people here.

“From the outside, that was the perception, so this is where I wanted to be. And then when I came here and realized that it was that and much more, this is a great opportunity to have an amazing career doing what you love to do with the values and the people that align with how I feel.”

Kyle Larson knew winning a year ago at Martinsville would be big for Hendrick Motorsports

Kyle Larson knew winning a year ago at Martinsville would be big for Hendrick Motorsports

Hendrick Motorsports has won a total of 304 Cup races and 14 Cup championships.

The current driving stable has two championships — Elliott (2020) and Kyle Larson (2021). The other 12: Jimmie Johnson (seven titles), Jeff Gordon (four) and Terry Labonte (one).

The first HMS race came in the Daytona 500 in 1984, where Bodine finished eighth.

“When I think back 40 years and coming down [to Daytona] and feeling like I didn’t belong, seeing Junior Johnson and the Pettys and Wood Brothers, and man, here we were with five full-time people and no sponsor, and we finished in the top 10,” Hendrick said.

Hendrick also has played a pivotal role in helping other owners get into the sport. He had his employees consult with NFL Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs when Gibbs first started his Cup team in the 1990s.

While Gibbs isn’t one of the 13 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees with ties to Hendrick Motorsports, he is one of those influenced by him.

“[His help] was major,” Gibbs said. “I had an interesting phone call. I’m there in Washington. I was thinking about trying to get into racing, … [and] everybody had told me the person you need to call it Rick. 

“Well, when I called Rick, he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to put my general manager with you.’ … Rick played a key role in getting us started. We bought some stuff from him. We had a motor package with him for quite a while. Rick was instrumental.”

So even his competitors will enjoy seeing Hendrick’s 40th anniversary celebrated Sunday as his team will don all ruby-colored paint schemes. Hendrick will get to drive the pace car prior to the race. Gordon and Bodine will give the command to start engines.

“The first time I went to Martinsville, I went to see [NASCAR great] Ray Hendrick and the modified cars, and I also got Richard Petty’s autograph through the fence,” Hendrick said. “I’m not sure how old I was.”

‘Couldn’t write a better script’ — Jeff Gordan & Rick Hendrick on William Byron’s Daytona 500 win

'Couldn't write a better script' — Jeff Gordan & Rick Hendrick on William Byron's Daytona 500 win

Larson is the defending winner of the spring race at Martinsville, a track where Hendrick has won 28 times.

“I understood the significance of Martinsville long before I ever got to Hendrick Motorsports,” Larson said. “You could see it when any of their teams won, what that place meant to them.

“So when I got to come to Hendrick Motorsports, I knew about Martinsville and all that, and I hoped that I would win there someday to add to the legacy there.”

For Larson, the legacy is spoken and unspoken.

“The first win there is talked about a lot, but the tragedy, is not mentioned often — at least personally to me,” Larson said. “But it’s always on everybody’s minds anytime we get ready to go to Martinsville. 

“I’m sure all of that makes us want to win there or have a good run there, even more than other tracks probably.”

Hendrick has won at 31 of the 36 Cup tracks it has raced on over the 40 years and has reached plenty of milestones as the winningest organization in NASCAR Cup Series history. Its 300th win came last year. Leading the 80,000th lap in team history came earlier this year. What’s the next milestone?

“Trying to win a championship in the 40th [anniversary] year is probably a huge deal,” said Byron, who became the sixth Hendrick driver to win the Daytona 500 earlier this year. “Just some of the milestones this year, in general. I don’t know about race win numbers, but obviously getting to 400. Hopefully, I’m here for that and can contribute more.”

Hendrick also hopes to be there, at least for a while. The 74-year-old Hendrick already has a succession plan in place. Gordon, who owns a minority stake in the organization, has been working in the vice chairman role of the team for the last few years and handling many of the duties of a top executive.

“Jeff Gordon and all the team will carry the banner,” Hendrick said. “I’m planning on being here for the next 30 anyway. I’m not going anywhere.

“It’s so much effort put into a racing organization to win and everybody new that comes in carries the water again and again, and It’s too good to stop.”

Although 40 years ago, it almost stopped. And then there was the race at Martinsville.

“From me reading between the lines, he was pretty close to pulling the plug and he was kind of over it and things weren’t going good, and they weren’t running as well as they wanted to run and just didn’t think he wanted to keep spending money on it,” Elliott said.

“And I think that win was the thing that propelled and motivated them to keep going. So I’m glad they won for all of our sake, for sure.”

 Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including over 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.

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