Johnson's First Martinsville Win Came With a Price
This Sunday, NASCAR goes to a track that has been around just as long as the sport has been in existence. The Martinsville Speedway in Virginia has provided close racing, lots of bent parts, and some great finishes.
For Hendrick Motorsports, it is the track where the organization got started. A car driven by Geoff Bodine was what started the most successful multi-car team to ever take a green flag.
It's a track that at one time was dominated by the No. 24 Chevrolet of Jeff Gordon. Between 1996 and 2005, Gordon found victory lane seven times at the 0.526-mile "paper clip" track.
In 2004, teammate Jimmie Johnson began a streak of his own. In just seven seasons, Johnson has one fewer victory at the track than Gordon.
But, the victory that possibly means the most to Johnson and the entire Hendrick Motorsports team came on a fall afternoon in 2004.
It started out like any other race day. Overcast skies welcomed teams as they prepared to do battle on the track. Rick Hendrick did not go to the track, as that weekend he felt ill. Little did he know there would be more sickness to come.
After 500 laps, Johnson was the one taking the checkered flag. He did his round in victory lane, but was then asked to come to the NASCAR hauler. Teammates Gordon, Terry Labonte, and Brian Vickers soon followed. What NASCAR officials had to tell them had nothing to do with the race, their cars, or actions on the track.
Instead, it was news that was withheld from the team until the checkered flag flew.
Approximately 30 minutes before the race, a Hendrick plane carrying 10 people, crashed seven miles from the track. On that plane were sponsor representatives, Hendrick employees, and four members of Hendrick's family.
No one survived the crash.
Hendrick lost his brother, John, twin nieces, Jennifer and Kimberly, the team general manager, Jeff Turner, and chief engine builder, Randy Dorton. Three pilots also passed away.
But, what hurt the most for Hendrick and the entire NASCAR community, was the final person who passed in the crash. That was Rick's 20-year-old son, Ricky, who had taken over ownership of the team's Busch Series team.
Reality set in and the four drivers knew that the celebration had ended, and the grieving had begun.
Johnson got his first victory at NASCAR's shortest track, but much like Michael Waltrip when he won the Daytona 500 in 2001, it came at a price. The day after the race, a barricade was put at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters. No media, fans, or paparazzi were allowed in. Just Hendrick employees.
The next week, the series went to Atlanta. Hendrick Motorsports arrived, just like every weekend, hoping to win a race. But, when the cars unloaded, it became clear that their thoughts were elsewhere.
The cars of Vickers, Labonte, Gordon, and Johnson all arrived with a black hood with the message "Always In Our Hearts" at the forefront.
On that afternoon, Johnson again went to victory lane. His Hendrick teammates joined him shortly after, each one with their hats on backwards. It was a tribute to their fallen friend, Ricky, who always wore his hat in that fashion.
Hendrick himself came to victory lane as well donning the reverse lid. It was an entire family coming together to remember, honor, and celebrate the lives of those lost that Sunday afternoon.
Johnson comes to Martinsville this year having won three of the five races. It's a track he enjoys, and one he's favored to win at. The Lowe's team has the most momentum early in a season that they've ever had in a championship run.
But each time he comes to this track, he's reminded of his first win because of what was lost that afternoon.
The Martinsville Speedway is very special for Hendrick and Johnson. On that afternoon, those two lost more than they won.
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