2014 STP 500: Hendrick, Martinsville share complex relationship

Tyler Barrick

Martinsville Speedway has been the site for some unbelievable highs for Hendrick Motorsports, as well as some unimaginable lows.

In the 30 years since Hendrick Motorsports won its first NASCAR race, which came at Martinsville Speedway, the team and the track have shared a complex relationship.

At the time, the team was known as All-Star Racing and it was a far cry from the juggernaut it would eventually become. The team fielded just a single car and there were real concerns about the viability of the upstart first-year outfit owned by a Charlotte car dealer named Rick Hendrick.

"With the plane crash there is a lot of motivation. ... … You can see how much it means to (Hendrick) to win here. … But with all the emotion that you have here I think we are in a good place here."-Jimmie Johnson

Since then, Hendrick has become the most successful organization in NASCAR's history. Drivers under the Hendrick banner have won 11 Cup championships and 219 races.

The incredible highs have been accompanied by some painful lows, however.

It was at Martinsville where a plane crashed en route to the October 2004 race. Among the 10 people killed were Hendrick's brother, son, two nieces, the team's head engine builder and general manager.

Jimmie Johnson won the race that day. He was uninformed about the tragedy and told on his victory lap not to pull into the winner's circle and instead come down pit road and stop.

"We get to pit lane, and there are police officers standing around our cars, and I'm like ‘What in the world has happened?'" Johnson said. "Normally there are NASCAR officials not police officers. I walk through that from time to time. I hope to never ever go through anything like that again."

Since then, every visit to the half-mile track nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains has brought reflection. When Johnson woke up Friday and saw overcast conditions, his thoughts immediately turned to that fateful day.

But amidst the sorrow, there have been plenty of joyful moments as well.

Between them, Johnson and Jeff Gordon have 16 total Martinsville victories and have combined to win 11 of the last 19. And overall, Hendrick owns a track-best 21 victories with Geoff Bodine and Darrell Waltrip also recording wins for the owner.

It's without question where the organization's dominance is most pervasive.

"Obviously, with the plane crash there is a lot of motivation when we come to this race track," Johnson said. "... You can see how much it means to (Hendrick) to win here. It is a cool, amazing experience to go through ... But with all the emotion that you have here I think we are in a good place here.

"Absolutely we are sad that the aircraft went down and we lost everybody that was on the airplane, but I am finding today that there are a lot more happy stories as we are reflecting back."

That success is something Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long witnessed even before he joined Hendrick in 2008. He has seen firsthand how Johnson and Gordon navigate the tricky short track. Earnhardt would like to replicate the Martinsville magic his teammates have experienced and add a coveted Martinsville grandfather clock to his collection.

What also hasn't gone unnoticed by Earnhardt is how consistent Hendrick is on a yearly basis, not just at Martinsville, but on every track in the series. Earnhardt credits Hendrick's people skills and his ability to maximize everyone's potential as the reasons why he's won more championships and races than anyone else.

"It's been interesting to see how Hendrick Motorsports has progressed and changed and evolved," he said. "... Ever since really Jeff got there (in 1993) they have never fell off. They have always maintained their status as one of the top teams with a lot of growth and success.

"When you actually get to work there and get behind closed doors and see the influence that he has just on individuals. Everybody just pushes so hard to do something good every day. It makes everybody else's job that much easier.  It's just good reflection of his influence on the company as a whole."

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