Hendrick's team shows resolve again

Saturday, February 25, 2006

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jimmie Johnson's victory in last Sunday's Daytona 500 is one more example of how Hendrick Motorsports bounces back from adversity.

Johnson raced in NASCAR's biggest event without his crew chief, Chad Knaus, who was suspended after being penalized for making an illegal modification to Johnson's car a week earlier in qualifying.

But Darian Grubb, the lead engineer on Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, took Knaus' place, showing the depth that Rick Hendrick's team has built.

"Basically, I was trying to do the same thing I've always done," said Grubb, who generally shares the top of the pit box with Knaus. "I was able to bring in some other engineers that had some experience, too, to help me out. They just fed me enough information to make the calls myself instead of feeding the information to Chad."

Sounds simple? Not really.

Hendrick Motorsports, which fields four full-time entries in the Nextel Cup Series, is better prepared to make quick personnel changes and to take up the slack for a missing key ingredient than most teams.

Hendrick, whose money comes mostly from one of the biggest auto dealership networks in the United States, employs more than 500 people at his team's sprawling campus in Concord, N.C.

Beyond the manpower, though, this team never panics.

When Hendrick was diagnosed with a virulent form of leukemia in November of 1996, the future of the team appeared bleak.

"But nobody left," Hendrick said. "Everybody stuck with us and we were able to get through that situation."

John Hendrick, Rick's brother, took over the day-to-day management of the team and it sailed on as if nothing had happened. The team responded by starting the 1997 season with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven dedicating a 1-2-3 sweep of the Daytona 500 to their embattled boss.

In August 1997, Rick Hendrick pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for a $20,000 bribe sent to a Honda executive for preferential treatment. Because of his illness, Hendrick was sentenced to one year of house arrest, but he was also barred from any contact with his team during that same period.

No problem, Gordon went on to win two of his four series championships in 1997 and 1998. Hendrick, who underwent a bone marrow transplant, was finally able to return to lead his team in 1999.

Then came the biggest blow of all.

The crash of a team plane on the way to a race in Martinsville, Va., in October 2004 killed 10 persons, including John Hendrick; Rick's son, Ricky; two nieces and several key team executives, among them engine builder Randy Dorton and general manager Jeff Turner.

Again, the Hendrick team soldiered on, with Johnson winning the next Sunday in Atlanta and again two weeks later in Darlington.

"If you ask me what I'm proudest of with my team it's the way everybody pulls together and we work like a family when something comes up," Hendrick said earlier this week. "We had every crew on all the other teams offer help when this thing happened down here.

"I think it's a caring company. I don't want to sound corny but I think that's the key, and I think everybody works together hard and they want to see the thing work."

Johnson's team will have to get along without Knaus for the next three races as well. But Johnson and Grubb head to California Speedway for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at the top of the standings and with plenty of confidence.

"The way this team responded in Daytona and the victory in the 500 is going to carry a lot of confidence throughout the race team for however long we're without Chad," Johnson said.

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