By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Returning to the track a week after unspeakable tragedy struck into the heart of the team, Hendrick Motorsports rolled into Atlanta Motor Speedway in late October 2004 looking to kickstart the healing process.
By the time the checkered flag flew on the Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500, the healing was well on its way thanks to an emotional win from Jimmie Johnson.
En route to Martinsville Speedway the previous weekend, a Hendrick Motorsports team plane, carrying 10, had crashed into Bull Mountain in southeast Virginia. There were no survivors.
Among those killed in the crash were four family members including team owner Rick Hendrick’s only son, Ricky, his brother, John, and two nieces, Kimberly and Jennifer. Key members of the Hendrick Motorsports team were also on the plane, namely general manager Jeff Turner and chief engine builder Randy Dorton. DuPont executive Joe Jackson, pilots Richard Tracy, Elizabeth Morrison, and Tony Stewart’s pilot Scott Lathram rounded out the 10 souls on board.
With a loss as big as the team had just suffered, many wondered how the team would be able to cope, but there was work to be done at Atlanta and everyone at the track stepped up to deliver an emotional win for Hendrick Motorsports in remembrance of those lost.
All of the team cars carried a special decal with the faces of those that passed in the crash and four poignant words: Always in Our Hearts.
Though Mark Martin dominated the day, leading 227 laps, everything began to change with 20 laps to go as Johnson stalked him for the race lead.
As Martin battled his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who was running a lap down at the time, Johnson found the opening he needed and took it, pulling alongside Martin and duking it out with him over the course of the next lap before taking over the top spot for good.
However, it wasn’t a done deal just yet as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Carl Edwards tangled on the backstretch a lap later, bringing out the final caution of the day and a restart with 10 laps to go.
Both Johnson and Martin elected to come to pit road for tires, while a handful of cars, led by Kasey Kahne decided to go for the opposite strategy and stayed out on track, meaning both Johnson and Martin would have their work cut out for them if they were going to end the day in Victory Lane.
Weaving his way through traffic, it took Johnson less than a lap to reassume the top spot as he had the victory in sight. The only thing standing between him and the win he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates all wanted was a late charge from Martin, who made his way to second with eight laps remaining.
Try as he might, there was no catching Johnson in the end as he kept his Chevrolet firmly in the lead and crossed the line 0.293 second ahead of Martin to claim his third straight win and continue his climb up the points standings.
“This has been the hardest week of my life,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “With the loss that we had and trying to get back to the race track and do the jobs that we’ve got to do and do what it is that Mr. Hendrick loves the most – that’s racing.
“For us to try to put all of that stuff behind us and do what it is that we needed to do, it was hard, but we did it for the love of Rick and Linda, the rest of the Hendrick family, and the Turners, Liz and Dick, it’s just absolutely amazing. Of course, Scott. It’s just awesome.
“I don’t know if it was meant to be, but Randy Dorton, it wasn’t just his engine under the hood today.”
Spinning his car around to collect the checkered flag, Johnson performed a backwards victory lap in memory of those lost before pulling into Victory Lane to celebrate with not only his team, but all of Hendrick Motorsports.
After a brief cell phone conversation with Rick Hendrick, Johnson emerged from his car and put his hat on backwards in memory of Ricky Hendrick, who could always be seen walking around the garage area with his hat on backwards as well.
“There is no medicine like that,” said Johnson. “It doesn’t change anything and we don’t get back our friends that we’ve lost, but it sure makes it feel better to do something like this. It’s just unbelievable. I’m at a loss for words. I just don’t know where to start.
“I want to thank my crew guys, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports to have such a difficult week and to be able to bounce back and do this. I don’t know what to even say. This is unbelievable. I just talked to Rick on the phone and he said to put my hat on backwards for Little Ricky, so there it is for Little Ricky, Randy Dorton, Joe Jackson, Liz and Dick, Jeff Turner, just everybody.
“The 6 car (Martin) was coming, but I had 10 angels riding on this race car. Feel bad for Mark. Dominant car, but things happen for a reason. Unfortunately, the events that happened, God had a bigger plan for them and there’s was a bigger plan for this Hendrick team here today.”