Commentary

'84 win kick-started Hendrick dynasty

Updated: March 27, 2009, 2:53 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Rick HendrickAP Photo/Chuck BurtonThe car that started it all for Rick Hendrick: The famed No. 5 driven by Geoff Bodine.

CONCORD, N.C. -- Frank Edwards stared out the door of the small, tin garage on top of the hill off Papa Joe Hendrick Boulevard. Below him on more than 100 sprawling acres, just beyond the chain-link fence where legendary crew chief Harry Hyde once lived in a trailer, is a huge complex with more than 550 employees.

Golf carts are scurrying everywhere to transport people from one large state-of-the-art building to the next. Yet another tour bus is pulling away from the museum.

This is the home of Hendrick Motorsports, originally known as All-Star Racing because owner Rick Hendrick thought he had deals with seven-time champion Richard Petty and country music star Kenny Rogers. Some would call it, and rightfully so, a dynasty. Out of these walls have come 175 Sprint Cup wins and eight Cup championships.

And more memories than one can count.

"I'm amazed to look around and think how it started and how it is now," said the 72-year-old Edwards, the only remaining member of the original five-member Cup crew that started in this modest structure. "But I never had a doubt it was going to happen."

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick
AP Photo/Ric FeldJeff Gordon has won four Cup championships for Rick Hendrick, the most recent in 2001.

Twenty-five years ago he was one of the few without doubt as the team headed for Martinsville Speedway, the site of Sunday's race. The No. 5 driven by Geoff Bodine wasn't fully sponsored and there were serious questions about whether it would run another week.

"I told Harry we absolutely were going to quit two races before that," Hendrick said of Hyde, who initially rented him the land to start the team. Then came Martinsville, already a special place for Hendrick because it was about 70 miles from his home in Warrenton, N.C. Martinsville is where Hendrick watched some of his first stock car races, where he got the autograph of childhood heroes such as Petty through a fence.

On a sun-splashed spring day in 1984, it became even more special as Hendrick got his first win with Bodine piloting a red and white Chevrolet to a six-second victory over Ron Bouchard.

It was so unexpected that Hyde said there was no way they could win, and Hendrick chose to attend a church function with his wife in Greensboro, N.C., instead of the race.

It was a defining moment for what now is NASCAR's top organization. Northwestern Security Life immediately jumped on board for full sponsorship. That and the $29,880 paycheck allowed a team that planned to run about 15 races to go a full season.

Or as Hendrick says today, it allowed the organization to survive.

"So if we had not won that race 25 years ago, Hendrick Motorsports probably would not be here today," said Hendrick, who now has more wins (17) at Martinsville than any other track.

Hendrick will celebrate that win on Sunday by bringing one of the cars Bodine drove -- the original Martinsville car is being restored -- to the half-mile speedway for a FanZone appearance.

Edwards, who has spent the past few weeks making sure the car's engine is finely tuned and the paint is spit-shoe shiny, also will make the trip.

He can only imagine what Hyde would say if he were alive.

"He did not think Mr. Hendrick would make it," Edwards said as he leaned against the No. 5's rear spoiler. "If he could rise up and look back and see this. ... I don't mean this against him, but Harry thought when he quit that racing would quit.

"To look back and see all of this, I imagine he would lose his breath."

In the beginning

The original No. 5 was born only a few feet from where Edwards stood. This shop was all there was back then. It overlooked a large pond and swamp area, which has been largely filled in over the years to make land for more buildings.

Edwards gave up his job running a small shop in Middleburg, N.C., a stone's throw from Hendrick's hometown, at the age of 47 to help the man he met as a teenager chase his dream.

Most thought it was doomed to fail. A car dealer like Hendrick whose only legitimate background in racing was with dragsters and boats wasn't supposed to succeed in a business most were born into.

But Edwards was confident, after a couple of meetings with Hendrick at City Chevrolet in Charlotte, N.C., that it was worth the risk. So 10 days after he agreed to a deal -- he delayed the start to complete hunting season -- he began working on Hendrick's cars.

"Been here ever since," Edwards said with a smile. "I've heard other people question him, but you have to know Rick Hendrick like I do to understand when he makes up his mind he is going to do something, it's going to be done."

It was Edwards who helped convince Hendrick and Hyde to hire Bodine. He'd watched him race modifieds and late models up and down the East Coast and knew he could compete with the Pettys and Allisons.

"Harry didn't know Geoff Bodine," Edwards said. "There was very little doubt in my mind what Geoff Bodine could do."

Bodine, like Edwards, met Hendrick at City Chevrolet. After a lengthy discussion, Hendrick said he'd get back to him. Bodine politely asked if he could sit in the next room and wait for a decision.

Ten minutes later, he had a deal.

"I knew nothing about Rick, just what Harry told me," Bodine said. "Racers are a fickle bunch. If you weren't a racer in those days all your life, a new guy coming into NASCAR, a car dealer, he's going to fall on his face.

"But that didn't really concern me. I just wanted to work with Harry, to have a chance to work with that knowledge and history in racing. I wasn't concerned with who owned the team."

Eight races in

Hyde stood up the day before the '84 Martinsville race to throw a wrinkle into the celebration of Bodine's 35th birthday.

"He got up and said, 'Well, I don't think Bodine is ready to win. I don't think we have the car to win,'" Bodine recalled. "I was a little shocked. I got up there and said, 'I don't know what Harry is talking about, but I think we can win.'"

Hyde apparently was joking. Fortunately, Bodine didn't take him seriously. After watching Bobby Allison lead 266 laps, Bodine passed him on the outside of Turn 3 with 48 laps to go. He then held off Bouchard for the victory.

[+] EnlargeFrank Edwards/Rick Hendrick
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonFrank Edwards, left, is the only remaining member of the crew that put Rick Hendrick in Victory Lane at Martinsville 25 years ago.

Darrell Waltrip was third and Allison fourth. Dale Earnhardt was ninth and Petty 12th.

"The really neat thing was everybody didn't drop out," Bodine said. "It wasn't given to us. Our pass of Bobby Allison, you didn't see many go to the outside like that. We won fair and square against some the best of all time."

Edwards wasn't surprised. He knew Bodine was easy on brakes and that brakes always were a factor late at Martinsville. He also knew he and Hyde put a few things on the car at the shop to help.

"It ran 500 laps and had half the brake pads left," Edwards said. "Everything on it was legal. Nobody knew how easy Bodine was on brakes. He didn't ride them as hard as a lot of people do.

"When it got to the long runs, the ones that had been abusing their car, they faded a little. Bodine just sat there strong."

As for Hyde's prerace comment, Edwards laughed.

"I don't know hardly how to say this, but Harry had a way of covering himself before it started," he said. "I never heard him say we're going to do this or that.

"But Harry and Bodine made a heck of a team. Harry was good and Bodine was smart. There was a couple of times when Mr. Hendrick had to come down, and one would state something and the other would state something else. Then Rick would tell him the way it was going to be and they would go back to racing."

A time to celebrate, a time to mourn

Champagne and smiles flowed freely in Victory Lane that day in '84. "Oh, my God, we went wild," Edwards recalled. "Nobody had any idea we could go to Martinsville and finish the race, let alone win it."

The versions of how Hendrick learned of the win vary. Some say general manager Jimmy Johnson called him from Victory Lane. Hendrick recalled hearing it from his mom after church.

However he found out, he drove straight for Bodine's home in Pleasant Garden, N.C., to celebrate.

"I don't think anybody in NASCAR expected Rick Hendrick to build this dynasty in NASCAR back then," Bodine said. "But Rick knows how to manage people. That's the key to success in this world, and he does that very, very well.

"He's been able to assemble and keep really good people."

Among those are many of the top 50 drivers of all time, from Bodine to Waltrip to Terry Labonte to Jeff Gordon to Jimmie Johnson to Mark Martin. But the people Bodine really meant were the behind-the-scenes guys.

The best example of the depth at HMS came in 2004 when a Hendrick plane crashed on its way to Martinsville on a dreary, foggy day. No one survived. Among the 10 people aboard were Hendrick's brother, son and key personnel such as engine builder Randy Dorton.

Johnson won that day, but there was no celebration. Many wondered how the organization would survive. It more than survived. Johnson and four-time champion Gordon pushed harder than ever and nearly caught Kurt Busch for the title.

Two years later, Johnson won the first of three straight titles. Gordon leads the standings heading into Sunday's race. "He's a people chemist," said Jim Wall, director of engine engineering at HMS and the first degreed engineer hired by the company. "He picks out people from this group and that group and lets them work together to create something greater than the individual."

Martin, who joined HMS this season, says the way Hendrick treats people is unbelievable. His leadership was a huge reason he returned from partial retirement to run full time at the age of 50.

"Every time I get a chance to be around Rick, I just want to sit there and soak it up like a sponge and try to learn from him," Martin said.

Bodine, who is fast approaching his 60th birthday, would like to do the same.

"I wish I was one of Rick's drivers now," he said. "I wish I had all that to work with."

Everybody listens now

Edwards glanced over his shoulder at a pair of picnic tables in the far corner of the shop under a list of eight things Hendrick believes are necessary to succeed.

"Let me tell you, when we'd have a meeting and Rick came out, which he did a lot back then, everybody would sit right there at those break tables," he said. "[Ken] Schrader actually took the original ones, but I told him if they ever started to talk to burn them up.

"A lot of things were said around those tables."

And everybody at the shop listened, even if those on the outside didn't.

"No one paid any attention to me when I came in," Hendrick said. "Harry wanted an opportunity. He told me if he could build a car, he could win a race, and I was naive enough to believe him. I got to Daytona and looked out there with Junior Johnson and the Wood Brothers and all of those guys and I thought, 'Man, what am I doing here?'"

Few questioned Hendrick after his first win. Those who did certainly didn't after he won three races in his first season.

"All of a sudden, that's when people started looking at us," Hendrick said.

Now they don't just look at Hendrick, they look up to him. What he's brought to the sport in terms of sponsors outside of the automotive business and multicar teams has made him a pioneer.

The classy way he has endured such adversity as his bout with leukemia, a felony fraud charge and the plane crash has made him a role model.

And it all started 25 years ago in the Virginia foothills at Martinsville Speedway, where on Sunday he'll try to win for the 10th time in the past 13 races there.

"It was a good start," Edwards said as he looked around the shop where it all began. "It was a positive start. Rick made the statement then, when he came in one time and talked, that if we hadn't won those three races, it might not have been.

"That's something you don't know. But if I could back up and bet, I would have bet he would have made it if we hadn't won that one. I just believe that much in him."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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