You would like Rick Hendrick, the genial NASCAR team owner whose cars finished 1-2-3 on Sunday in one of the most dramatic Daytona 500s ever. You would feel comfortable with him, even though his dealerships generate $2.2 billion annually and make him the biggest retail car dealer in the U.S. You would certainly feel for him, if not because he's facing a possible 210-year prison sentence should he be convicted of federal money-laundering charges, then because he's suffering from a rare form of leukemia.
"It didn't matter which of us finished first, second or third," said Jeff Gordon, the Hendrick driver who took the checkered flag just ahead of teammates Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven, "so long as we finished 1-2-3 for Rick." It was an unprecedented achievement in NASCAR racing and the first time a team had swept the top three spots in a major auto race since 1982, when Porsche finished ein-zwei-drei in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Hendrick, 47, comes from the farmlands near South Hill, Va., where as a kid he turned wrenches on his daddy's tractors. In 1976 he bought his first dealership, in Dentsville, S.C., and kept expanding throughout the southeast and across the country until his empire reached its current total of 89 shops. That includes 18 Honda franchises, the source of Hendrick's legal troubles. In December he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Asheville, N.C., for allegedly giving bribes to Honda officials to ensure that he had a steady supply of cars even when other American dealers faced shortages. The indictments came down two days before Hendrick was to be honored at NASCAR's awards banquet in New York City as owner of the Labonte and Gordon teams that finished one-two, respectively, in the '96 Winston Cup championship series.
The timing of the indictments seemed calculated for maximum political gain, Hendrick's outraged friends in the racing community said, but Hendrick's party had already been spoiled. A month earlier he learned that he had chronic myelogenous leukemia. Soon thereafter he found out there's no match in his family for the bone marrow transplant he needs to fight it.
Last Thursday some of Hendrick's friends—including Roger Penske, whose cars have won 10 Indy 500s; Joe Gibbs, the Super Bowl coach turned NASCAR team owner; Bill France Jr., the president of NASCAR; and Dale Earnhardt, seven-time Winston Cup champion—stood under a press tent in the Daytona infield making an appeal to fans to register as potential bone marrow donors.
Hendrick, for his part, has contributed money to the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry and is looking into setting up a foundation to aid the efforts of that organization. On Sunday, even though he was suffering from a cold—something you don't want to have when your immune system is on the ropes—he said on the phone from his home near Charlotte, "I hope we'll help some poor folks who need marrow transplants to save their lives."
With his plight as subtext and with 11 of the 200 laps left in the race on Sunday, his triumvirate of drivers came to the fore as if drawn by fate. The key moment occurred when Gordon tried to overtake Earnhardt for second place and the privilege of pressuring leader Bill Elliott. Gordon charged low into Turn 2 and came back up into the middle of the track as he entered the straightaway. Earnhardt, who was trying to avoid going 0 for 19 in stock car racing's premier event, stayed high coming out of the turn and scraped the retaining wall. Gordon's Chevy survived a sideswipe from Earnhardt's car and continued on, but an on-rushing pair of former Daytona 500 winners, Dale Jarrett and Ernie Irvan, couldn't keep from ramming Earnhardt's car and flipping it. Suddenly it was rolling over and over down the backstretch.
With Earnhardt, Jarrett and Irvan—three of the prerace favorites—out of the picture, Labonte and Craven magically appeared up close and cozy in Gordon's mirror. "I'm sitting there on the restart, and I've got Bill Elliott in front of me and my two teammates sitting behind me," said Gordon. "That was a sign. A good sign."
During the preceding week's qualifying and preliminary races, the word had been that as a result of NASCAR's new rules on rear spoilers and bodywork, some mysterious aerodynamics had come into play. Drivers needed more help—from two or more cars—to create a draft, to "push" them when they made a run at passing another car. At precisely the time Gordon needed such aid the most, up came his stablemates, Labonte and Craven. "With three Hendrick cars behind you, you ain't got a chance," Elliott said when all was done. "I was dead meat, and I knew it. It was just a matter of when and where."
The when came on the 194th lap. "I turned my radio to Terry's channel," Gordon said after the race, "and I told him, 'Terry, it would be pretty neat if we could get these three Hendrick cars by Elliott.' Terry said, 'Yeah, that'd be neat. I'll be with you.' I turned to Ricky's channel and said, 'Terry's going with me. Who you going with?' Ricky said, 'I'm going with you.' "