They were feasting on ribs and steaks and mahimahi when the room, in a heartbeat, fell quiet. The start of the Daytona 500 was less than 20 hours away, and car owner Rick Hendrick, whose stable of NASCAR drivers includes Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, was enjoying dinner with a few family members and friends aboard his 150-foot yacht, which was anchored just off Daytona Beach. Outside, the last blush of sunlight danced over the dark blue water, signaling the end of the most difficult off-season Hendrick had endured in his 21 years in NASCAR; inside the cabin Hendrick was watching himself in Victory Lane. ¬∂ On the big-screen television Speed Channel had just begun replaying highlights of Hendrick's most cherished motor sports memory: In July 2001 Hendrick's only son, Ricky, drove to victory in a Craftsman Truck Series race in Kansas City, Kans. The group watched in silence as Hendrick, on the monitor, gave Ricky a long, loving embrace in the winner's circle. As this father-son moment played out on the screen, all eyes on the yacht moistened, and hugs soon followed. It has been four months since 24-year-old Ricky and nine others--including Hendrick's brother (John), his twin nieces (Kimberly and Jennifer) and one of his oldest friends (Randy Dorton)--died in a plane crash on their way to a race in Martinsville, Va. "Every day is hard," said Hendrick on Sunday morning as he leaned against Gordon's transporter in the Daytona garage, awaiting the start of what he considered one of the most important races of his career. "My family and friends on that plane gave their lives for something they believed in. I have to go on for them. I have to. I'm working as hard as I can."
With two laps left in this year's 500, Hendrick's hard work was paying off: Both of his top drivers were in position to win the 47th running of the Great American Race. Debris on the track had brought the caution flag out on Lap 198 of the scheduled 200. (The race was extended to 203 laps due to the late caution.) Seconds earlier Gordon had emerged from a furious duel at the front of the field to grab the lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was second, and Johnson, who was third. This set up a green-white-checker finish, a two-lap, hold-your-breath sprint for victory. Hendrick Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) had combined to win 13 of the last 14 restrictor-plate races, and now the top drivers from each team were lined up in a row at the front of the pack. As the cars approached the start-finish line for the final two laps, the crowd of nearly 200,000 hummed with anticipation; this was the head-to-head racing matchup that everyone had waited 3 1/2 hours to see. "I was really worried about Dale Junior," said Gordon. "He was flying through the field."
At the restart Gordon bobbed and weaved, trying to block Earnhardt's Budweiser Chevy. Junior stayed right behind him, trying to hold the low line around the speedway, as Johnson ran high. Gordon charged through the final lap and a half, frantically holding off a late surge by 2004 Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch to win his third Daytona 500. Junior throttled home in third, and Johnson, who acted as Gordon's blocking back for the last two laps--banging fenders off the final turn with '02 Cup champ Tony Stewart, who had led for much of the race--wound up fifth. Stewart took seventh.
"We had raw desire," said Gordon. "Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports has been motivated to honor those that were lost. They're looking down and smiling now."
The victory was the 70th of Gordon's career, the seventh-highest total in Cup history. It also establishes the 33-year-old Gordon as the driver to beat for this year's championship. Ever since he won two races in his second full-time Cup season, in 1994, Gordon has been considered by most observers to be the circuit's top all-around talent; he's the rare NASCAR driver who's capable of winning races on every type of Cup track--short, intermediate, superspeedway and road course. The four-time Cup champ has finished each of the last 11 seasons in the Top 10 in points, and he would have taken another title last year if NASCAR had used its old points format. (He finished second in the Chase for the Cup, behind Busch.) But what makes both Gordon and Johnson a weekly threat to reach Victory Lane this season can be summed up in two words: Hendrick horsepower.
"The engines we have this year are absolutely unbelievable," says Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis. "We've been chasing DEI on the restrictor-plate tracks for a long time, but now we've finally caught them."
On Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports effectively ended DEI's superspeedway supremacy. Before the 500 the DEI cars of Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip had won 11 of the last 16 restrictor-plate races. Hendrick has taken three of the last four checkered flags on tracks where restrictor plates are placed on carburetors to keep speeds down. The team's emergence as a plate-racing superpower can be traced to a meeting held in Rick Hendrick's office just days after last year's Daytona 500. Hendrick's cars were respectable last year--Johnson finished fifth in the 500 and Gordon came in eighth--but Hendrick viewed those results as a colossal failure. On several occasions he told his drivers that he wanted Hendrick Motorsports to be the team of the decade, and that meant consistent wins at Daytona, NASCAR's most-hallowed track. When the team returned to Hendrick headquarters in Charlotte from last year's 500, the owner was visibly agitated as he spoke to the crew chiefs of his four Cup teams. "We're not going to tolerate this," Hendrick said in the meeting. "We're going to do better, and I got a plan."
Following the model of DEI, Hendrick created a specialized restrictor-plate program; four engine builders would work full time only on plate engines. This investment of resources paid immediate dividends: At the very next restrictor-plate race, at Talladega last April, Gordon outdueled Junior to claim the victory. Then at Daytona last July, Gordon and Johnson dominated the Pepsi 400; drafting together expertly, they finished one-two. Much of the credit for developing the power under the hood went to Hendrick's old friend Randy Dorton, the team's chief engine builder. But Dorton was on the plane that went down in rural Virginia in October, and many in the Cup garage privately speculated that the team's engine program would sputter as a result. "Randy was such a huge part of our success," says Loomis. "His loss was just devastating."
Walk around Hendrick headquarters today, and you can see several pictures of a smiling Dorton on the walls. His presence is still palpable to all 90 mechanics in the Hendrick engine shop who, to a person, view this season as an opportunity to cement Dorton's legacy by winning a championship. To that end they logged an average of 10 extra hours a week in the shop this off-season, trying to bring Hendrick its first Cup title since Gordon won in 2001. "None of us want to let Randy down," says Jeff Andrews, Dorton's protégé and now the engine program director at Hendrick. "He's the one who set up how we do things, and he's the one who brought everybody in. We're all still very committed to him."
That commitment was evident in qualifying for the 500 on Feb. 13: Four of the six fastest cars in the field had Hendrick horsepower. The DEI cars, meanwhile, floundered. Earnhardt, the reigning 500 champ and the winner of seven career plate races, was 39th; Waltrip was 33rd. In racing circles Junior's struggles were attributed to the fact that, for the first time in his six-year Cup career, he was competing without Tony Eury Jr. as his crew or car chief. Earnhardt and Eury Jr., who are cousins, grew up just five miles apart in Kannapolis, N.C., and are as close as brothers--brothers, that is, who sometimes feud. Early in the 2004 season Richie Gilmore, DEI's director of motor sports, began to think about separating the pair. The two Juniors occasionally bickered over the radio during races, and sometimes they used the bluest of language when addressing each other in the garage. The low point of their relationship came in November in Homestead, Fla., during the final race of the '04 season. Little E and Eury Jr. were so frustrated by how their season had fallen apart--just seven weeks after leading the point standings, they had dropped to fifth--that they gave each other the silent treatment for virtually the entire weekend.
"Some days they were best friends, some days they were archenemies," says Gilmore. "Something had to be done."
A few weeks into the off-season Gilmore called Earnhardt into his office at DEI and informed Little E that the two DEI teams were going to switch crew chiefs, crews and cars for the 2005 season. This meant that Eury Jr. would become the crew chief for Earnhardt's DEI teammate Waltrip, and Pete Rondeau, who had been Waltrip's crew chief, would be in charge of Earnhardt's car. Upon hearing Gilmore's directive, Junior recoiled.
"No, let's just leave it," he said. "Let's not do this." Little E was afraid that his cousin's feelings would be hurt, but after Gilmore explained his reasons for making the switch--that the number 8 team was carrying too much family baggage, that the change would ultimately be good for Junior's career--Earnhardt agreed to the plan. "I trust your judgment," he told Gilmore before leaving his office.
Though Earnhardt didn't quite reach Victory Lane on Sunday, his third-place finish--which, given his qualifying struggles, is almost as impressive as last year's win--vindicates Gilmore's decision, at least momentarily. And by all appearances the Earnhardt-Rondeau marriage is off to a good start. While Junior is perhaps the biggest extrovert in NASCAR, the 39-year-old Rondeau is a man of few words. Unlike many in the sport, Rondeau, who grew up in Saco, Maine, has a relaxed demeanor, more befitting a family doctor than a big-time crew chief, and he's clearly had a calming effect on Earnhardt; even when Little E was struggling during Speedweeks, he stayed unusually upbeat, a fact that bodes well for the duo's future.
"I like Pete a lot," says Earnhardt. "I think this move will mature me."
Junior's car handled poorly for much of Sunday's race, but Rondeau kept tinkering with the setup at each pit stop. The handling slowly improved; still, at Lap 169 Earnhardt was stuck in 17th place. That's when he decided to challenge the limits of his race car, calmly telling Rondeau over the radio, "I haven't been getting nowhere all day. I'm going to start making some moves and see if they pan out."
Driving more aggressively, Junior charged through the field. By Lap 177 he was in 10th place. Then on Lap 195 he blazed past Tony Stewart on the high line to seize the lead. The sea of red-and-white-clad Earnhardt fans in the grandstands roared. It looked as if Junior was going to steal the race and repeat as champion, but three laps later Gordon, running alone without benefit of a draft, blew by Little E as they swept out of Turn 4. It was the fifth lead change in five laps--and it would be the last one of the day. No one had the juice to catch Gordon and his Hendrick engine.
Seconds after Gordon cruised past the finish line, Hendrick climbed down off the number 24 car's pit box. As he walked up pit road, dozens of rival crew members rushed to shake the owner's hand; a few fans, their eyes wet with emotion, patted him on the back. Then Hendrick, like his drivers all day, got in a hurry. He jumped over the pit wall and pushed through a crush of security guards. Victory Lane was just 20 feet away. Nothing will make his heartache disappear, but just before he reached the wild celebration in the winner's circle, Hendrick raised his arms into the air and did something that he hasn't done in a long time: He smiled. ‚ñ†