With the way things have played out recently, you wouldn’t know that the NASCAR Nationwide Series used to have races that were won by Nationwide Series only drivers.
This was back in the days when young drivers fought for bragging rights amongst each other as they dreamed of the Sprint Cup Series.
This was the time that Hendrick Motorsports not only was a force to reckon with in the Sprint Cup Series, but they were grooming drivers in the Nationwide Series.
Such was the case in when 2001 Rick Hendrick bought the No. 24 machine in the Nationwide Series that at the time was a team co-owned by Hendrick and Jeff Gordon. A year later they would promote the partnership as a result of hiring Jimmie Johnson to drive the No. 48 in the Sprint Cup Series.
Upon the purchase, Hendrick changed the number from No. 24 to No. 5 and his son Ricky, whom everyone knew would be groomed for a larger role at Hendrick Motorsports in the future, became the driver.
With sponsorship from GMAC, the No. 5 car hit the track for three races with Ricky finishing a career best 15th at Kentucky.
Unfortunately, Ricky would break his shoulder in a wreck at Las Vegas that ended up sidelining him for six weeks.
Those six weeks, which included shoulder surgery, would be an eye opener for the 22-year-old.
He would return and finish out the season but not before announcing he was ending his short and young career.
After suffering the wreck at Vegas, Ricky admitted that he wasn’t the same driver and couldn’t stop thinking about the accident and what might happen to his shoulder he next time he was involved in a crash.
So, Ricky decided he wanted to retire from driving and follow his father by being a car owner, and soon thereafter he started exploring the car dealership business.
The No. 5 car did continue to race with many different drivers behind the wheel, such as David Green and Ward Burton.
Then in 2003 Ricky made his first big car owner decision by hand picking his friend, Brian Vickers, to pilot the car full-time.
Vickers went on to win three races that season and capture the Nationwide Series championship and when Vickers moved to the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2004, Ricky became the car owner of Vickers No. 25 Ditech.com Chevrolet.
The Nationwide Series operation though, wasn’t finished.
The No. 5 was taken over by Kyle Busch with Ricky still the car owner of record.
Ricky was enjoying his new role, saying he was better being outside the car than inside the cockpit. It appeared he only had one rule for his two employees of Busch and Vickers. “If they ever referred to me as boss,” he said, “I’d slap them.”
Life was good for the Hendrick family. Father and son enjoying life, being successful in the racing business chasing checkered flags and championship hardware and Ricky would be starting a family soon. His fiancée Emily Maynard was expecting their first child in early 2005.
Except both racing and life for the Hendrick family and the Hendrick organization changed forever on a foggy day of 2004 in late October.
A Hendrick Motorsports plane that was headed to the race in Martinsville, VA crashed in route along Bull Mountain killing all 10 on board.
Rick Hendrick, who wasn’t on the flight because he was feeling ill that day, lost his son Ricky, his brother John, John’s twin daughters Kimberly and Jennifer, Hendrick Motorsports engine builder Randy Dorton, Hendrick Motorsports General Manager Jeff Turner, DuPont executive Joe Jackson, pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison, and Scott Lathum who was a pilot for Tony Stewart.
Since that day the Hendrick Motorsports organization has a whole new look.
Vickers no longer drives for the company, now leading the Red Bull Racing tag-team. And Busch was let go by Hendrick Motorsports in 2007 and has been enjoying his new success with Joe Gibbs Racing.
But the organization has remained strong, now with 181 Sprint Cup wins and Jimmie Johnson won the last three straight championships.
The Nationwide Series operation is a different story.
The No. 5 was what Ricky considered his “child” as like any car owner he watched the team grow and succeed. Lately, however, it’s been parked and that’s a shame.
After Busch brought the No. 5 car to victory lane five time and finished second in points with it, he vacated upon graduating to the Sprint Cup Series.
Since then the car has had seven drivers in it between 2005-2007.
Not only did the sponsors come and go, as did the drivers, but the No. 5 went from being an elite Nationwide Series car to an after-thought.
A championship is distant memory, and victories are few and far between, just as the track time that the No. 5 has seen recently.
In 2008 the last piece of Ricky Hendrick that was attached to the No. 5 car disappeared. After hiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. to come drive one of his Sprint Cup cars, Rick Hendrick made Earnhardt Jr. the co-owner of the Nationwide No. 5.
The team was moved into Earnhardt Jr.’s shop.
For the first time since it’s inception, the No. 5 did not run a full season in 2007, only competing in 26 of 35 races.
A year later, once again seven drivers split time in the car and were able to compete in all 35 events, with Mark Martin and Ron Fellows able to bring home the checkered flag.
But this year the No. 5 is all but extinct.
Lack of sponsorship, which most likely arises from not having a full time driver capable or running for a championship, has kept the car from competing.
When it has hit the track, it’s not the car it once was.
Wrecks or middle of the field efforts are common scenes. It almost appears that they are down on horsepower compared to everyone else.
Don’t expect to see it dominating races, or winning championships or coming close to being a factor each weekend.
Those days are gone, just a memory of what Ricky Hendrick wanted when he stepped out back in 2002 in hopes of making it one of the best Nationwide Series cars on the track each weekend.
If Brad Keselowski is to move up the Cup Series in 2010, it would be nice to see the 5 car get more attention with it’s rich history and the dreams a young man had for it.
What a way to remember a man that was on the promising road to becoming just as successful as his father, when he left us too soon. All that remains are the memories of a career and a car that Ricky Hendrick truly made his own and that should be honoring him each weekend on the track.
Instead his memory is sitting in a garage covered in dust.
“I feel like it’s my child. It’s something I put together and something that I started.”