Rick Hendrick is a racer before anything else. Rick drag raced his first car, a 1931 Chevrolet that he modified in the back of his grandfather's general store in South Hill, Virginia. A skilled racer, he has competed in many racing events and is an accomplished drag boat pilot. He even raced in his own NASCAR stock cars on a few occasions.
In 1975, Chevrolet appointed 25 year-old Rick Hendrick to take over the dealership in Bennetsville, SC – making him the youngest Chevrolet dealer in history. After turning the struggling dealership into the most profitable in the area, he was awarded the opportunity to acquire his flagship dealership – City Chevrolet in Charlotte, NC. Today, Hendrick Automotive Group is the largest privately held automotive dealership network in America with over 140 dealerships across the country. The groups retail sales exceeded 198,000 vehicles and $8.4 billion in revenue in 2015.
While planting the seeds of his automotive empire, Rick Hendrick kept racing. After his close friend, Jimmy Wright, the pilot of his championship winning and record holding drag boat Nitro Fever lost his life racing in 1982, Rick ceased his boat racing operations and turned his eyes back to racing on asphalt.
In 1983, Hendrick met legendary crew chief Harry Hyde – a man who desired a second chance to build race winning cars. Just months later, a shiny new red & white No. 5 Chevrolet Monte Carlo showed up for Daytona Speedweeks in February 1984. With Harry overseeing the wrenches and a hungry Geoff Bodine behind the wheel, the new team impressed everyone. They ultimately won on their eighth start at Hendrick’s home track in Martinsville, Virginia. Since then, the Hendrick Motorsports story has been one of triumph and tragedy, rewriting the history books all the way.
In addition to Bodine, who won the team’s first Daytona 500 in 1986, the decade was highlighted by the meteoric rise of superstar driver Tim Richmond and NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Darrell Waltrip, who won the team’s second Daytona 500 in 1989.
Having only wheeled Hendrick cars for one full season in 1986, and a partial season the following year, Richmond was permanently sidelined due to illness. But not before setting Hendrick Motorsports on a course for the stars. He won nine times in 37 starts – an astonishing winning percentage of 24%. To this day he still holds the record for best average finish for a Hendrick driver.
The 1990’s saw the emergence of a California kid they called “Wonder Boy,” who along with a wise Texas veteran known as the “Ice Man” elevated Hendrick Motorsports from race winners to series champions.
The 1994 season would set the stage for an unprecedented string of championships to follow. Terry Labonte won three races in his new role as driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet, while Jeff Gordon captured his first two wins on the biggest stages in the sport – the second of which is quite possibly one of the most famous moments in NASCAR history...
With few exceptions dating back to 1911, the track referred to as “The Speedway” held one race annually - “The Indianapolis 500.” The Indianapolis Motor Speedway prided itself on calling their one race “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” and outsiders were not welcomed with open arms.
As NASCAR reached unprecedented heights in popularity, even the hallowed grounds of Indy couldn’t resist the savagely aggressive stock cars and the thrilling show they put on. On August 6th, 1994 the gamble paid off when the largest crowd in NASCAR history attended the inaugural Brickyard 400, well in excess of a quarter of a million strong. After an intense 160 laps of racing drama, an adopted son of Indiana triumphed in the instant classic – and a young Jeff Gordon’s life was changed forever.
Hendrick Motorsports first championship in 1995 was the dawn of a decades long dominance in the NASCAR Cup series. On the back of Jeff Gordon’s seven wins, seventeen top 5's and twenty-three top 10's, the No. 24 Chevrolet team won the series championship.
In 1996 Gordon would win an astonishing ten races to Terry Labonte’s two, only to fall short in the championship standings to the newly anointed “Ironman” of NASCAR.
Gordon would win ten races yet again in 1997, and this time he’d seal the deal and hoist his second championship trophy at season’s end, and Hendrick Motorsports third consecutive Cup title.
All was not well at Hendrick Motorsports, however. Rick Hendrick was diagnosed with leukemia, and handed the reigns of his team over to the capable hands of his brother, John.
Perhaps the highlight of the season happened at its outset when Jeff Gordon led teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven to a 1-2-3 finish in the Daytona 500 – the first time a team had accomplished this feat. As their beloved race team owner fought for his life back home, they held up a sign in victory lane which read, “Rick, This One's For You.”
As if 1997 wasn’t enough, Jeff Gordon’s 1998 season would go down as the most dominant in the modern era of NASCAR. His No. 24 Dupont “Rainbow Warriors” team, led by NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham, would win 13 of the 33 races and the organization’s (at the time) record fourth-straight NASCAR Winston Cup championship.
In 2001, the No. 24 Chevrolet team would again reign supreme. Now adorned with flames as iconic as its old rainbow scheme, Jeff Gordon would capture his fourth and final Cup title, highlighted by his third Brickyard 400 win.
Although, Gordon’s biggest achievement that season may well have been orchestrating the addition of a fourth Cup team for Hendrick Motorsports. The teams new driver was a fellow Californian – an off-road racer who was So-Cal cool and just wanted to win a stock car race.
His name was Jimmie Johnson.
After a handful of wins in both 2002 and 2003, including a triumphant final career win for Terry Labonte in the historic Darlington Southern 500, the 20th Anniversary season for Hendrick Motorsports in 2004 would see the most trips to victory lane since 1998 – led by a series high eight wins for Jimmie Johnson.
Despite all the success, it was a year mired by unimaginable tragedy. Three months after the loss of Papa Joe Hendrick in July, a small plane carrying ten members of the Hendrick Motorsports family crashed en-route to a race in Martinsville Virgina. There were no survivors.
The teams raced on at the Virginia short track, unaware of the events that had transpired, and Jimmie Johnson captured his second straight Cup victory that day. Hendrick Motorsports spent the next week mourning, coming together, and preparing for the next race at Atlanta Motor Speedway – a race where Johnson would do the impossible.
With “ten angels riding on his racecar,” he would take his third-straight checkered flag and provide the hundreds of people at Hendrick Motorsports a moment of relief and a chance to smile and remember their lost colleagues.
The most successful organizations are led by inspiration and strength from the top, and Hendrick Motorsports is a prime example. Facing unimaginable grief, Rick Hendrick led his team out of their darkest days and turned their loss into motivation to go out and take it to the world.
After Johnson and Gordon barely missed out on the 2004 and 2005 titles, Johnson and the No. 48 team were determined to own the 2006 season from start to finish. They started off on the right foot, winning Hendrick Motorsports second straight Daytona 500. Johnson would then go on to win the Brickyard 400 after a miraculous come-from-behind victory with a damaged No. 48 race car. That November, his team would accomplish their goal: they were NASCAR Cup Champions.
But this was only the beginning…