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Source: Racer Magazine

Hendrick’s milestone at Martinsville – the track that saved the team

by Kelly Crandall | April 2nd, 2024

Rick Hendrick had no plans to be at Martinsville Speedway for the Cup Series race at the track on April 29, 1984. The first-year NASCAR team owner had already decided that his organization wasn't fit to make it in the sport. Hendrick didn't have the funding to keep going no matter how he did the math and was making plans to shut the doors of what was then called All-Star Racing in the early weeks of April.

But when Hendrick told driver Geoff Bodine and crew chief Harry Hyde, the duo asked for more time. The race at Martinsville was approaching, and Bodine loved the Virginia short track, where he'd won in modified and late models. If given the chance, Bodine and Hyde were confident they could make something happen in the Cup Series car.

The team went to Martinsville. Bodine won the race and, ironically, Hendrick wasn't there because he and his wife Linda were at a church event in North Carolina.

Martinsville 1984 was a timely breakthrough for Geoff Bodine and what would evolve into one of NASCAR’s greatest teams ever. Photo courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports

It can be said with sincerity that the rest was history for Hendrick. The operation not only kept going for the rest of the '84 season, in which Bodine won twice more, but today is the winningest organization in NASCAR Cup Series history with 304 victories and 14 championships.

"There's a lot of stories around this place; that one has been pretty prevalent," longtime Hendrick crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "(Rick) has been pretty vocal about that. I think he's always used that as good perspective. The message I always took away from that is if he would have quit and not gone to that last race, this doesn't exist. So, when you use that on a weekly basis and say, yeah, you race a lot of races and it becomes monotonous, but you never know what race is going to be the paramount one or the most important of your season. Or, in this case, the history of the company.

"Yeah, I've heard that story a lot. Probably since I started."

Sunday, Hendrick Motorsports will celebrate its 40th anniversary at Martinsville Speedway. All four drivers will run ruby red (the color of a 40th anniversary) paint schemes, Bodine and Jeff Gordon will serve as co-grand marshals, and Rick Hendrick will be the pace car driver. There will be plenty of that activation and acknowledgment of the milestone around the weekend (Bodine's car will be on display) as it becomes a Hendrick Motorsports takeover.

How it all started is now well-known around the NASCAR industry. And for those within the walls of Hendrick Motorsports, no matter when they joined the company.

"I've heard the story a lot, for sure," Alex Bowman said. "Ever since I've been here, it's something that gets talked about quite often. It's special to win there with HMS and just to kind of learn the history of this company and to build that relationship with Rick ... and see the highs and lows of the company at that place. It's definitely an important place in this company's history.

"To have the 40th-anniversary race (there), I think it's a really special place for it. It's going to be really cool."

Bowman joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2016 as the substitute driver for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. He turned it into a full-time ride in 2018 and in 2021, Bowman won at Martinsville for the first time driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

After Bodine got that first Martinsville victory there have been 27 more since then. It's where Hendrick Motorsports has won the most of any racetrack (Dover is the second-closet at 22 victories).

Gordon won at Martinsville nine times during his Hall of Fame career, including his final Cup Series victory in the fall of 2015. He also had some classic battles with teammate Jimmie Johnson there. Johnson also won at Martinsville nine times in his Hall of Fame career.

Martinsville hosted many of the legendary duels between Hendrick teammates Johnson and Gordon, like this one in 2004. Robert LeSieur/Motorsport Images

The four current Hendrick Motorsports drivers have one win each at Martinsville Speedway. It's only fitting that each one of those victories came as a Hendrick Motorsports driver (Chase Elliott 2020; Alex Bowman 2021; William Byron 2022; Kyle Larson 2023).

"I've certainly learned more about (Bodine's win) as we've talked about the 40th (anniversary) and all those things," Elliott said. "The coolest thing that I've learned about it is just how close Rick was to being done. From me reading between the lines, I think he was pretty close to pulling the plug.

"He was kind of over it and things weren't going well — they weren't running as well as they wanted to run, and he just didn't think he wanted to keep spending money on it. I think that win was the thing that propelled and motivated them to keep going. So, I'm glad they won for all of our sake."

Today, Bodine's winning car resides in the museum on the Hendrick Motorsports campus. Byron, who moved into the Cup Series driving a Hendrick Motorsports car in 2018, has seen it there, and the importance of the car comes up whenever milestones are talked about within the company. He said it gets talked about more and more over the years.

The history of Hendrick Motorsports will forever be tied to Martinsville Speedway and the spring 1984 race. All of the success that's followed — in NASCAR and at Martinsville — started from a race that a driver and crew chief had to advocate to compete in.

However, the story of Hendrick Motorsports cannot be told without including the darkest day in its history. One that is also tied to Martinsville Speedway.

Rick Hendrick lost family, friends and employees on Oct. 24, 2004, when the company's Beechcraft Super King Air 200 crashed into Bull Mountain in Virginia on the way to the racetrack. There were no survivors.

On the plane were Hendrick's son Ricky, nieces Kimberly and Jennifer, brother John, team general manager Jeff Turner, engine builder Randy Dorton, pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison, Tony Stewart's pilot Scott Latham and DuPont executive Joe Jackson. NASCAR informed the Hendrick Motorsports teams of the crash when the race concluded, which was won by Jimmie Johnson. There was no post-race celebration.

"I think I was aware of it all both on the good side and the tragic side of what Martinsville has meant to Hendrick Motorsports and their family," Larson said. "But once I got here, you get to firsthand see how important that place is almost more than any other racetrack on the circuit. I think you understand that there's not more pressure when you go there, but the meaning behind winning there just means more to this organization than I think it would to any other team and rightfully so.

"I'm excited to get there. Hendrick is taking over the facility, so it's going to be a lot of fun. Hopefully one of us four (drivers) can have a really good race and win there on a special day."

Sunday's celebration event will be the 375th race for Hendrick Motorsports at Martinsville Speedway.

"There's a lot of emotions that come with Martinsville for the boss and rightfully so," Elliott said. "I couldn't imagine. It's been a place that has had a lot of highs and certainly the lowest of lows. I think now, you just try to honor the folks that we lost as best we can and try to carry forward things as they would want them to be."