Rick Hendrick's life full of high, lows, and ultimately, class

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Rick Hendrick had visions of being in the middle of nowhere 31 years ago when Chevrolet offered him the opportunity to run his first dealership in Bennettsville, S.C.

Sure enough, he was.

As he drove past the county line on Highway 401, he saw a house in the middle of a swamp. Soy bean and cotton fields were at seemingly every corner, including the one where the dealership sat.

The dealership itself was nothing to write home about. There were only two salesmen and no showroom, a far cry from the job he had in Raleigh, N.C., where he had 30 salesmen who sold 300 cars a month under him.

It was a shock, even for somebody who grew up on a "poor-ass farm."

"I was, 'Oh, there's no f------ way,' " Hendrick said. "But Chevrolet told me if I could turn it around, they would give me a bigger opportunity."

Hendrick, now 58, turned it around. He now owns 65 dealerships in 10 states. He rakes in an annual revenue of more than $3 billion and employs thousands of people.

His race organization isn't doing so badly, either.

Heading into Sunday's Nextel Cup finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET, ABC) Hendrick is assured of his seventh championship since Jeff Gordon won his first in 1995.

Jimmie Johnson has an 86-point lead over Gordon and needs only to finish 18th to wrap up his second straight title.

But Hendrick's impact on the sport goes beyond championships. He is considered a great visionary, ushering in the multi-car era in the mid-1980s and taking it to another level by putting Johnson and Gordon under one roof with the same crews working on both cars.

He helped take the sport from its Southern roots and good ol' boy image by signing Northerner Geoffrey Bodine as his first driver. He has turned what was a hobby for most into big business by bringing in global sponsors such as Exxon and Budweiser and taking risks few before him were willing to take.

He also is one of the most generous people in the garage, from the Hendrick Bone Marrow Foundation he began after being diagnosed with leukemia in 1996 to serving on the board of the Victory Junction Gang Camp for chronically ill children.

"He elevated this sport to a whole new height," said Felix Sabates, the co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing and a longtime friend of Hendrick. "If it wasn't for him and the vision of [former NASCAR chairman] Bill France Jr., we wouldn't be where we are today.

"The people before him, they were just happy to be racing and making a living at it. Rick looked at it as a way to make money."

Sabates said seven-time champion Richard Petty was the only owner who truly saw the big picture when Hendrick came into the sport in 1984.

"[But] he couldn't take it to the level Rick has because he didn't have the financial awareness with sponsorship," Sabates said.

Petty, who had a deal to drive for Hendrick before STP stepped in at the last minute and nixed it, said Hendrick raised the bar for everyone.

"He's been a big instigator of taking it out of being what was race-oriented into the business world," Petty said. "He was a racer, but being a racer was a hobby and not his job. He was able to take that hobby and take his job and put money and people and circumstances around to win races.

"He knew what it was going to take, and he went out and bought it."

NASCAR president Mike Helton called Hendrick NASCAR's most significant individual in the modern era.

"You look through history, and the Petty family was obviously huge in the garage area," he said. "But Rick has certainly in his tenure as a participant and car owner raised the height bar and has established the standard that exists in the sport that everybody hopes to achieve."

Dark days

Sabates was at Hendrick's home on Oct. 24, 2004, when Hendrick got a phone call saying the HMS plane carrying Hendrick's son, brother and two nieces and six key employees had crashed into the side of a mountain on the way to Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.

There were no survivors.

"He just sat down and cried," recalled Sabates, who was scheduled to be on the flight with Hendrick before both backed out at the last minute.

It was a moment, as former Hendrick crew chief Ray Evernham said, that changed the lives of everybody involved. But Hendrick never let people in his company see how much pain he really felt. He never considered shutting the doors and walking away.

"I remember the week after the plane crash," said Robbie Loomis, who was Gordon's crew chief at the time. "He called me Saturday night in Atlanta and said, 'I feel like a general in the army that's been shot 15 times, but we're not the first American family to have a tragedy.'

"He said, 'We need to roll up our sleeves and be an example of others to go on.' I said to myself, 'There's a guy who had the world basically stripped from him, who has all the money in the world, and realizes it doesn't matter, and he wants to be an example to others.' "

John Bickford, Gordon's stepfather and business manager, said the plane crash was the ultimate test for a man who has endured many.

"The true test of a real man is his ability to be down and grab your own shoe strings and pull hard and stand back up and say, 'I woke up this morning, and I still have a job to do and thousands of people depending on me, and I have to be there for them,' " he said.

Hendrick has done this over and over. In 1997, he was fined $250,000 and sentenced to 12 months of home confinement (instead of prison, because of the leukemia) and three years of probation for allegedly bribing smaller dealerships for more inventory to sell in his Honda dealership.

He was told to have no involvement with Hendrick Automotive Group or Hendrick Motorsports during the confinement.

He took it all in stride, although many around him believed he got a raw deal.

"A large part of that was bull----," Evernham said. "That was wrong. There were people that used Rick as a scapegoat to save their own butts. He never complained. He held his head up and did his deal.

"I've seen in the business over and over where Rick, even if he's getting screwed, he deals with it and goes on. He's a special guy and deserves all the success that he's having."

Hendrick eventually was given a full pardon from then-President Bill Clinton in 2000, and rightfully so, according to Bickford.

"If you go back and do research, you had a couple of Honda dealers that were not as successful as Rick," he said. "They were envious of his success. It inflated what was going on and exaggerated a lot of situations. For the most part, it was bogus."

Again, Hendrick handled it with class.

"That's the way he is about life," Sabates said.

Milk and cookies
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were in the middle of one of their arguments, which were becoming increasingly detrimental to the team in 2005. Hendrick finally called them into his office, where a gallon of milk and cookies were waiting on his desk.

"I said, 'If we're going to act like kids, then we're going to take a break here and have milk and cookies,' " he said.

Hendrick doesn't like to look over the shoulders of his employees, but in this case, he felt it was needed. He told Knaus to stop working with a chip on his shoulder and Johnson to start sharing how he felt about his crew chief, who constantly pushed the gray areas and put the team's reputation at risk.

A year later, Johnson and Knaus won their first title.

"I've been down that road before, with Harry Hyde and Geoff Bodine and countless other drivers and crew chiefs," Hendrick said. "But it's probably the first time I've seen one that was going that far south and turn and do that well."

Knaus doesn't hesitate to give Hendrick credit for his success. He calls Hendrick the "most incredible human being I've ever met in my life," the person he most wants to be like.

"I don't think I have ever heard anybody say anything bad about Rick. Ever!" Knaus said.

Hendrick appreciates that more than winning races and titles.

"If Rick had a chance to win the Daytona 500 and a chance to have somebody say something nice about him, he would choose to have something nice said about him," Sabates said.

Hendrick takes the same approach in his car dealerships as he does with his race team.

"People talk about customer satisfaction," he said. "Before you can have customer satisfaction, you've got to have employee satisfaction. If these people don't think you care about them, they ain't going to care about you. That's the motto I live by."

That was his message to Johnson and Knaus in 2005.

"I know a little bit about all the parts in racing -- I built my own motors and stuff like that -- but I'm not good at anything," Hendrick said. "If there's anything I try to work the hardest on, my job is to keep all the people pointed in the right direction. Keep them motivated.

"If there's a problem, get it out on the table and talk about it, and at least try to keep harmony in the camp."

"Freaking serious"
Hendrick arrived Monday in South Florida, well ahead of the rest of the organization. He didn't come to work. He came to fish.

If you want to see the true competitive side of the man, spend a day on a boat with him.

"He's a freaking serious fisherman," said Sabates, who has spent more time fishing with Hendrick than most. "He's no fun to go fishing with. You go fishing with Rick, you go at 7 in the morning and stay until 8 at night."

Sabates recalled a recent trip on which an 8-foot surf beat the sides of the boat and how Hendrick sat there, as he always does, in a long-sleeve shirt to protect him from the sun, patiently waiting for the big one.

"I said, 'Rick, please, let's go,' " Sabates said. "He said, 'No, man. There's fish out there somewhere. I'm going to catch them.' You put him out on a fishing boat with somebody else, he wants to beat the other guy. He takes it too serious.

"When I go fishing, I drink beers and joke with my buddies. Rick wears a long-sleeve shirt in a hundred-degree weather, and he'll stay out there six or seven hours, easy. He doesn't drink, so he can do that."

Hendrick calls himself "quiet competitive." He doesn't like taking credit for success, saying he's blessed to be surrounded by so much talent almost to the point of embarrassment.

It's no accident.

"Rick is a risk-taker," Sabates said. "He has taken a lot of chances over the years with drivers that most of us consider a risk. Think about when he took Geoff Bodine. It was a Southern sport, and Geoff was a Yankee. Like we say in Spanish, that took big cajones.

"But he knows driver talent better than anybody in NASCAR ever has."

That much Hendrick reluctantly will admit.

"I've watched it and done it enough and driven myself, and I look for things in drivers and have been able to identify things I think work," he said. "That part of it I guess is true. But I've just been doing it a long time."

The King and Hendrick
Petty was ready to leave the empire his family built and drive for Hendrick in 1984. He had a contract in hand and his daughter already had one of Hendrick's Corvettes.

"It was a done deal, until we ran it by STP," Petty said.

Petty was willing to make the move because he knew Hendrick was the future of the sport.

"He had the money and the know-how of going out and getting the sponsors and getting the teams together," he said. "He was starting with a clean sheet of paper. He was going to be first-class."

Petty, the ultimate people person, also saw those skills in Hendrick.

"One of the things I admire about Hendrick is he's smart enough to put the right people in a position and then let them do their job," he said. "He's smart enough in people's personalities to know their capabilities and how they will fit into what he wants to do. That's a hard trait."

Terry Labonte said nobody can motivate people like Hendrick "and he never has to say a word."

"He treats everybody the same," said Labonte, who won the 1996 title at Hendrick. "It doesn't matter if it's the guy that sweeps the floor or the best engineer or crew chief."

Many of Hendrick's key employees, such as Gordon's crew chief, Steve Letarte, began at HMS by sweeping floors.

"Everybody thinks the world of him," Labonte said. "I remember when I first went to work for him, I was talking to somebody, and he said, 'It sounds kind of corny, but we're just one big happy family.' Sure enough, it was."

Petty saw the same thing in 1984 and still sees it today.

"He's a plain ol' country guy from somewhere up there in Virginia who started out with nothing," he said. "He got him a used-car lot, and then a dealership, and he's worked for everything he's got.

"So he deserves everything he's got, and he's good people on top of that."

Big heart
Hendrick had just taken over the dealership in Bennettsville when he traded for a Monte Carlo with only 5,000 miles on it. He told his employees not to sell it for less than $1,000.

Jeff Gordon

He's just an amazing person in so many ways. To me, he's the guy that you want to be. He's a family guy. He's a great businessman. He's competitive, yet he knows how to relax and get away and enjoy himself. He's just a very well-balanced person.

-- Jeff Gordon

"One day I look out on the lot, and here's an old black man with a little boy looking around the cars," Hendrick said. "He was wearing bib overalls, no T-shirt, and one of the straps was loose. I went out there and said, 'Can I help you?' "

The man wanted the Monte Carlo, but offered only $500. Hendrick, feeling somewhat sorry for the man, eventually agreed.

A few hours later, a manager from the bank called to ask Hendrick about the deal. Hendrick told him he gave the man a break because he didn't feel he could afford any more.

"The banker said, 'He don't need the money. He owns the land the bank is on. I'm just calling you to write you a check,' " Hendrick said. "I was, 'Oh, sh--! I just gave the damn car away because I felt sorry for him.' I tell all my guys at the dealership now, 'Never qualify a person until you know all about them.' "

All one needs to know about Hendrick is that he's arguably the most respected man in the garage.

He's also one of the most humble.

"He's just an amazing person in so many ways," Gordon said. "To me, he's the guy that you want to be. He's a family guy. He's a great businessman. He's competitive, yet he knows how to relax and get away and enjoy himself. He's just a very well-balanced person."

Hendrick won't be very relaxed Sunday. He knows one of his drivers will win a title and one will go home disappointed, which he never likes to see.

"Rick has the biggest heart in the world," Sabates said. "His legacy won't be that he won a lot of championships. It will be a nice guy did well."

And it all started with a small dealership in the middle of soy bean and cotton fields in the sandhills of South Carolina.

"There was nothing there," Hendrick said. "Nothing."

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