Like his father, Ricky Hendrick was a winner with an eye for talent

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Ryan McGee

Editor's note: As part of SPEED Channel's regularly scheduled NASCAR Live coverage, the network will offer viewers live coverage of Friday's Hendrick Motorsports question and answer session from Atlanta Motor Speedway at noon ET.

Ricky Hendrick's racing dreams began much like his father's — behind the wheel.

While Rick was busy building the Hendrick Motorsports empire, teenage Ricky was turning laps at short tracks around central North Carolina. But soon what his parents had quietly hoped would only be a hobby had grown into a full-fledged driving career.

By 2000, Hendrick had cracked the ranks of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Many quietly wondered if he had made the big leagues simply because of his last name. At the Kansas Speedway on July 7, 2001, Hendrick hushed the skeptics the only way he knew how.

By winning.

"I don't worry about those folks who think I'm spoiled or whatever," he said the week following his win. "The only respect I have tried to earn is from the guys out there on the track with me. Hopefully I've done that."

Hendrick finished the 2001 season sixth in Truck Series points, due mainly to a rookie record 19 top-10 finishes. It was time to take the next step — a move to the NASCAR Busch Series.

He earned two top-10 finishes behind the wheel of his No. 5 Chevy, but ran only a partial schedule due to serious sholder injuries suffered at Las Vegas in March. Surgery forced to him the sidelines for two months, and when he came back, he never felt quite the same in the cockpit. That led to the hardest decision of his young life — he announced his retirement from driving in October 2002.

"I don't want to put myself in a position to get hurt a lot worse," he told Totally NASCAR that weekend. "And I can't justify putting my mom through that kind of worry every weekend. This is time to focus on other things."

Like being a team owner. At the age of 22, Ricky followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Papa Joe Hendrick. He took his place in the pit stall, fielding the very car he himself had driven.

Hendrick put his good friend and former rival Brian Vickers behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevy, despite early protests from his father. But Ricky stood his ground, declaring that if this was truly his team, then he should pick the driver. Dad was skeptical, but impressed with his son's stand.

He soon proved that the legendary Hendrick family eye for talent had entered a new generation as Vickers became the youngest NASCAR national champion behind the strength of three wins and the stready friendship of the car owner barely three years his senior.

In 2004, Vickers moved into the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series with his best friend and car owner at his side. When Papa Joe passed away in July, grandson Ricky officially took the reins of the legendary No. 25 team. All the while, he contined to oversee operations of his Busch Series operation, still a mainstay in Victory Lane thanks to driver Kyle Busch.

Throughout his short life, people tried to tell Ricky Hendrick that he wasn't ready to meet his challenges. He wasn't supposed to win as a driver. He was too young to be a successful team owner.

But Ricky Hendrick never listened to the critics. He didn't have time.

He was too busy winning.

Ryan McGee is the managing editor of Totally NASCAR, and NASCAR This Morning on Fox Sports Net. He can be reached at his e-mail address: rmcgee@foxsports.com.

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