Commentary

Hendrick does it all … except take credit

Updated: October 9, 2009, 3:24 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

CONCORD, N.C. -- It's a random Wednesday morning, late September, and Rick Hendrick is pacing a bit. He's not fidgety, per se, but he's not necessarily comfortable, either. He is a busy man. Having just completed a summit with some sponsors, he walks casually into his massive corner office atop the shopping-mall-sized home of the Nos. 5 and 88 Sprint Cup teams and takes a seat.

There are six people in the room. He says hello to every one.

On his desk rests a glass nameplate and scale models of the airplanes in his personal and corporate fleet. It's so orderly it's tough to believe Hendrick sits there much. The walls and furniture are full of trophies from a quarter-century of competitive excellence.

[+] EnlargeRick Hendrick
AP Photo/Mary AltafferRick Hendrick on the importance of surrounding himself with good people: "These guys keep driving the train, and I'm just riding in the caboose."

It is the epicenter of the most dominant domain in NASCAR -- possibly in NASCAR history.

He will banter with me momentarily about the previous evening, one for the Hendrick family annals which, considering a résumé that includes every conceivable racing and business accolade, are significant.

He had addressed a crowd of some 2,500 people, all on hand to see a special screening of "Together: The Hendrick Motorsports Story," the definitive movie about his life's soaring highs and devastating lows. The film, produced and directed by the NASCAR Media Group, is impeccably done. Nothing is omitted. Hendrick's legal troubles are included. His battle against leukemia, too. Driver Tim Richmond's death due to AIDS and the 2004 plane crash that took Hendrick's son, brother, nieces and company leaders are included. Even Jeff Gordon's divorce gets ample play (and, for the record, is hysterical).

For the film to be legit, Hendrick had to buy into baring his soul. Think about that for a moment. We've all had hurts and embarrassments. Would we be willing to be transparent about them? Hendrick was, and the film sings as a result.

It is as hilarious as it is harrowing.

In the same way as the NMG standard "Dale," "Together" takes a very complex man and, in 99 minutes, transforms him into you and me, a human figure with vulnerabilities to whom everyone can relate. The stories are well-woven between triumph and tragedy, personal and professional.

Hendrick was nervous about addressing those folks after the screening that evening, not unlike the first time he stood at a podium in Manhattan as a champion to address the industry he'd just conquered. Ever-gracious, he deflected any credit.

That's the one thing about Hendrick that most impresses me: his humility. During our interview I tried like hell to get him to embellish. He, after all, laid the money on the table in 1984 to put Geoff Bodine on the racetrack. Hendrick didn't bite.

Twenty-five years later it can be argued that he is the greatest NASCAR team owner ever, but invariably he passes credit to his people. Example:

Me: "Only Petty Enterprises has more Cup titles than Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick is the only team to win four straight titles and is eyeing another four straight with the same driver -- that has never been done. Eleven national series titles, the most all-time. Hendrick holds or shares the record for most Cup wins at California, Darlington, Dover, Indy, Sonoma, Kansas, Charlotte, Phoenix, Pocono, Talladega and Watkins Glen. It can be argued you are the greatest NASCAR owner of all time. How do you respond to that?"

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Hendrick: "I'm honored and humbled at the same time. I have been so fortunate to have so much talent here, and it is hard to explain. I never thought we would win a race, never thought I would make it to the end of the year, never thought I would win a championship. I mean, that was kind of impossible. So to be able to accomplish those things have been really neat.

"You know, hopefully we can do more -- I would love to win 12 or 13 or whatever the number is of championships, but if we don't win any more it's been a good ride. And I think as long as we're competitive we are going to have the opportunity. And again, it's staying together, it's trying to get a little better every year and trying to surround yourself with good people. These guys keep driving the train, and I'm just riding in the caboose."

Not true. Not even. He told me addressing the company the morning after the plane crash was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do, that he didn't want to be there. But engaging with those people built him up. He walked into a room full of broken spirits and myriad questions. Those people needed to see him. No one else -- not Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or anyone else -- could offer the comfort those folks needed. Only Hendrick could. They had to hear it from the leader. He loves those people, so he did it.

The theme of the movie is simple: the Golden Rule. My mama beat that rule into my head my entire life: Treat people as you'd like to be treated.

That's what Hendrick has always done. His mama says so in the movie.

Most of those 2,500 people in that auditorium stood as proof. Most of those 2,500 people were there because Rick Hendrick affected their life in some fashion.

Nothing, it seems, is beyond Hendrick's ability. Except taking credit for his empire.

Marty,

What the heck is going on over at Richard Petty Motorsports? A Saudi prince? Really? Is that a joke?

-- Jessica Crabtree, Southern Pines, N.C.

I can't answer that, Jessica, because I don't know what's going on over there. I'd venture to say no one does.

Marty,

That [Joey] Logano wreck was awful. Is he doing OK now?

-- Raymond Francis, Dewey Beach, Del.

He's fine, Raymond. A bit shaken up, certainly, but physically fine. Sometimes we are served reminders that this gig is dangerous. Crazy as it is, we forget that. We've become desensitized to the inherent danger of racing door-to-door at 150 mph, because guys wreck, unbuckle and walk to an ambulance. Complain all you want about the COT; that's all you need to see to know why it's tolerable.

Tony Stewart deserves big credit, too. He was genuinely upset at having incidentally triggered that wreck. For him to say he'll never be able to appropriately apologize enough to Logano was big-time.

Marty,

Huge Jeff Burton fan. Will [Richard Childress Racing] be a four-car team next year?

-- Bobby Niles, Elkhart Lake, Wis.

They'd like to be, Bobby. It's all about dollars.

Marty,

Lose the pink shirt, man. You look like such a wuss in all those pastel colors.

-- Marcus Patterson, Hoboken, N.J.

Real men wear pink, Marcus. Don't forget it. It's National Breast Cancer Awareness month, folks. Donate!

That's my time, folks. I appreciate yours. I just wrote this on a plane on a BlackBerry. Seriously. Every word.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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