The Hot Pass: Hendrick's instincts pay off
Rick Hendrick has a way of making dreams come true for racers deserving of a second chance in their careers.
He was able to reignite the career of the late Tim Richmond after the dynamic driver suffered through a winless season in 1985 by giving him an opportunity to drive the No. 25 Folger's Chevrolet in 1986. In 29 starts, Richmond posted a remarkable eight poles and earned seven wins, 13 top-fives and 17 top 10's. Despite two engine failures, Richmond finished a career-high third in the point standings. He won two more races in eight starts the following year before dying of AIDS in August 1989 at the age of 34.
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Terry Labonte won a championship driving for Billy Hagen in 1984, but once he moved to the Hendrick stable a decade later, his loyalty was rewarded with three multiple winning seasons that hit a crescendo with his second Cup title in 1996 at the age of 40.
Fast forward to 2009. While Mark Martin, 50, isn't leading the point standings (he's currently 11th), he tops the Cup Series with the most wins (four) and on Saturday he won his fourth pole of the season and his first at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a lap of 182.054 mph.
"He's a special guy," Martin says of his boss Rick Hendrick. "He takes a little extra pride in that. I think he and Jeff Gordon both are enjoying our success because they were the biggest believers in this. Jeff was a huge supporter of Rick persuading me to do this, as well. Doing something that some people thought couldn't be done, I think they enjoy it."
Despite Martin's blistering lap of 49.436 seconds, he admitted to leaving something out on the track Saturday. But that's one of the differences between a seasoned racer compared to the less experienced driver. Humility aside, Martin knew he turned a "spectacular" lap but it pained him knowing he could have given just a little bit more.
"I went into Turn 3, like in my phrase, 'young and dumb,' and it was pretty eventful. When I got off of that one, I had this quick flash in my head of the (No.) 5 car on the wrecker, and therefore Turn 4 wasn't eventful. I had that quick flash. When I came off of Turn 4, not a tire on the car slipped. ... The car could have been better, and therefore I could have maybe done a better job with my judgment on the turns."
There are few drivers as calculated as Mark Martin. Sure, there's a self-deprecating side, but no one has ever questioned his commitment. While most drivers his age have hit the couch, Martin continues to set an example for his younger teammates with his intense workout routine. He confesses that over time, "there are some elements that deteriorate," but the experience behind the wheel and in life can compensate for those shortcomings.