Hendrick says family came first

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- As much as Rick Hendrick wanted to be a part of Jimmie Johnson's record-breaking run on Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his family's needs were more important.

Instead of watching Johnson win his fourth straight Sprint Cup title, Hendrick was at a hospital in North Carolina as his 29-year-old niece, Alesha Gainey, underwent a liver transplant.

Gainey is the daughter of Hendrick's brother, John, who, along with two other daughters, was killed in a 2004 Hendrick Motorsports plane crash on the way to Martinsville Speedway.

Hendrick said the surgery went well and Gainey, although not completely out of the woods, is in stable condition and recovering in intensive care.

"It was never a doubt in my mind where I needed to be and where I wanted to be,'' Hendrick said during a Tuesday conference call. "I couldn't have enjoyed the race or the celebration. I needed to be there with my family.''

Hendrick received news that Gainey was in critical condition on Friday in Miami and immediately returned to Charlotte, N.C. He watched portions of the race, including the end as Johnson finished fifth to clinch the title, in the hospital waiting room.

"I was perfectly content where I was,'' Hendrick said. "I would have loved to have celebrated with them, but I wasn't in the frame of mind to celebrate. They were going to get their job done no matter and I had a bigger job back here.''

Hendrick said his niece was on the way to watch the Carolina Panthers play the Miami Dolphins in Charlotte on Thursday night when she became nauseated.

He said she initially thought it was a virus and began taking a pain reliever.

Hendrick said doctors told him Gainey had an inflamed pancreas and that the combination of the pain reliever, being dehydrated and an empty stomach created a "perfect storm" and her organs shut down.

Johnson's title gave Hendrick nine in the past 15 years, tying Richard Petty Motorsports for the most in NASCAR history. It was a record 12th series title for Hendrick in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Truck circuits combined.

Hendrick's cars finished first, second and third in the Chase with Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. He said his emphasis for 2010 is to get Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went winless and finished 25th in points, in the Chase.

"My priority now is the No. 88 team,'' Hendrick said of Earnhardt's team. "We're working on them to try to make their team stronger. The goal going into next year will be to win races and get all four teams in the Chase.''

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