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Tragedy, trouble can't stop Hendrick teams

Jimmie Johnson's victory in last Sunday's Daytona 500 is one more example of how Hendrick Motorsports bounces back from adversity.

Johnson raced in NASCAR's biggest event without his crew chief, Chad Knaus, on suspension after being penalized for making an illegal modification to Johnson's car a week earlier in qualifying.

But Darian Grubb, the lead engineer on Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet, took Knaus' place, showing the depth that Rick Hendrick's team has built.

"Basically, I was trying to do the same thing I've always done," said Grubb, who shares the top of the pit box with Knaus. "I was able to bring in some other engineers that had some experience, too, to help me out. They just fed me enough information to make the calls myself instead of feeding the information to Chad."

Sounds simple? Not really. Hendrick Motorsports, which fields four full-time entries in the Nextel Cup Series, is certainly better prepared to make quick personnel changes and to take up the slack for a missing key ingredient than most teams.

Hendrick, whose money comes mostly from one of the biggest auto dealership networks in the nation, employs more than 500 people at his team's sprawling campus in Concord, N.C. Beyond the manpower, though, this team never panics.

When Hendrick was diagnosed with a virulent form of leukemia in November 1996, the team's future appeared bleak.

"But nobody left," Hendrick said. "Everybody stuck with us."

John Hendrick, Rick's brother, took over day-to-day management of the team and it sailed on as if nothing had happened. The team responded by starting 1997 with Jeff Gordon, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven dedicating a 1-2-3 sweep of the Daytona 500.

In August 1997, Rick Hendrick pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for a $20,000 bribe sent to a Honda executive for preferential treatment. Because of his illness, Hendrick was sentenced to one year of house arrest, but he was also barred from any contact with his team.

No problem, Gordon went on to win two of his four series championships in 1997 and 1998 and Hendrick, who underwent a bone marrow transplant, returned to lead his team in 1999.

Then came the biggest blow. A team plane crashed en route to a race in Martinsville, Va., in October 2004, killing 10 persons, including John Hendrick, Rick's son Ricky, two nieces and several key team executives. Again, the Hendrick team soldiered on, with Johnson winning the next Sunday in Atlanta and two weeks later in Darlington.

"If you ask me what I'm proudest of with my team it's the way everybody pulls together and we work like a family when something comes up," Hendrick said recently. "I don't want to sound corny but I think that's the key."