MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Rick Hendrick was a car owner with a fading dream when he went to church with his wife 25 years ago as his NASCAR team prepared to race at Martinsville 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 series 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,” he said, “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.”
Those early years included some of the biggest names in NASCAR: Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Tim Richmond and Ricky Rudd.
Now, he boasts four of the biggest modern names — Jeff Gordon, a four-time series champion; Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the last 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.
He 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 in Sunday Goody’s 500 for Hendrick.
But he’ll have to get past his teammates who have dominated the hallf-mile (800-meter) 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 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 (4-meter) cross placed at the crash site. And he always asks himself if he wants to be at the track on race day.
“And then,” he said, “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.”