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The race of Hendrick's life

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Despite leukemia, owner is back, indulging his love.

His house arrest is a thing of the past. His battle with leukemia is not. Not totally.

But rather than dwell on what has happened or worry about what might, Rick Hendrick lives for the day. And, as far as Hendrick is concerned, no day is better than a day at the track.

"Racing really is his life," said Hendrick's brother, John. "You know, his livelihood got taken away for the last two years because of his health but he's so happy to be back."

Daytona International Speedway is where Hendrick has come, to soak up the sun and watch his stable of cars for the first time since being beset by medical and legal problems.

The 50-year-old Charlotte, N.C., businessman and Hendrick Motorsports owner was down for January testing. He was here Saturday as his top driver, Jeff Gordon, won the pole for Sunday's Daytona 500. And now, despite a return home prompted by fatigue early this week, he plans to return to watch the boys beginning with Thursday's Twin 125s.

He couldn't be more elated about it, either.

"For an old man with leukemia," Hendrick said Saturday, "I'm pretty pumped up."

With a team like his, he should be.

In 1997, when Hendrick missed attending a Daytona 500 for the first time in more than 10 years as an owner, his drivers (Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven) finished 1-2-3. Gordon, of course, has won Winston Cup series titles in his No. 24 Chevrolet three of the past four seasons. And when Gordon did not win in 1996, Labonte did.

Now the Hendrick team strives to make it five since '95.

"They're excited about the season," Hendrick said. "It's going to be supercompetitive, like it always is. The level of competition is unbelievable. This sport, if you look back where it's come from and where it's headed, it's just unbelievable."

So is the Hendrick story.

He pleaded guilty in late 1997 to one count of federal mail fraud related to a scandal involving his auto dealerships and American Honda. He was fined and spent the next year under house arrest. Hendrick won't discuss the matter, but he did talk at length recently about his chronic myelogelogenous leukemia, a rare form of cancer fatal for about 50 percent of those who contract it.

Hendrick compared his fight to a Daytonalike race, saying, "At one time I was a lap down. Now I'm on the same lap (and) I think I'm going to get to the finish line."

Brother John said the cancer is in remission, but these past few laps haven't been easy: Rick Hendrick continues to undergo chemotherapy and take the drug Interferon, a toxic combination many patients cannot tolerate. "Wicked medicine," he calls it. Side effects include flulike symptoms and prolonged nausea.

It has all taken a toll on Rick, who expects to take some form of Interferon for the rest of his life.

By Sunday, he was too tired to stay, so John insisted he return to Charlotte until Thursday. Once back, Rick will spend his days at the track or resting in a motor home, and his nights at a beachfront hotel. Sunday he will see the start of the race in person, then watch on TV.

"We've got a pretty good plan," John said, "but keeping him in that plan is going to be pretty tough."

Said Labonte: "I think everybody's concerned he's going to wear himself down because he's the type of person who, when he goes back to the garage, he has to talk to everybody."

But Rick Hendrick insists he knows to not push himself. "I've got to remember it's a 500-mile race, and pace myself," he said.

Drivers in the Hendrick camp are happy to have their owner here, no matter how fast he can go.

"It means a lot for the team to have him back," said Wally Dallenbach, who drives the No. 25 Chevrolet. "He is the backbone of this team. He is a great motivator and a great people person. He's the glue that keeps this thing together."

But with Rick barred from running the team during his house arrest, John Hendrick was the substitute cement.

"(John) stepped into some pretty big shoes that he didn't want to step into," Dallenbach said, "but he rose to the occasion."

Rick deferred to John for all major decisions but kept abreast of the team's doings.

"The best medicine for him was being able to sit and watch the TV," Gordon said, "and see his race car go to victory lane, or win a championship.

"He's a great inspiration to us all," Gordon added. "Before he got sick, he was an inspiration to us because he was a great person _ not just a great businessman. He loves racing, and this is what he wants to do this year: to go to as many races as possible."

Hendrick's health will dictate his post-Daytona schedule. Meantime, he is boosted by the support of his team.

"These folks are like family to me," he said.

"I've been getting cards and letters from so many people. I could spend the next year and a half thanking everybody. It's overwhelming."

No more so than being back at the track.

Daytona 500

WHEN/WHERE: 12:15 p.m. Sunday, Daytona International Speedway.

NAPA 300: Winston Cup regular Ken Schrader wins pole for Saturday's Busch race. Back page.

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