In 1984, when auto dealer Rick Hendrick was trying to start a new NASCAR team from scratch, he thought he had a star driver lined up: Richard Petty.
Instead, the deal fell apart at the last minute.
Sunday night, at the Coca-Cola 600, Hendrick Motorsports finally chased down Petty Enterprises for the lead.
After Kyle Larson’s dominating victory at the Coke 600, Hendrick has now been the car owner for 269 wins at the NASCAR Cup level. Petty Enterprises, which has led in the “wins by owner” category for 61 years but which also hasn’t had a Cup series victory since 1999, fell to second with 268.
Hendrick made sure to pay tribute to Petty on Sunday after the win. “I want to say this about Richard: He’s a class act, “Hendrick said. “He has done more for the sport than anybody I know of in the sport.”
The number 269 is just a number, and a pretty obscure one outside the sport of NASCAR. But it means something to Hendrick. It also means something that the 71-year-old owner most of his employees call “Mr. H” did this on his Charlotte Motor Speedway home track, where his colossus four-car racing operation sits only a mile away and draws many thousands of visitors annually.
“I really wanted to break the record at home,” Hendrick said. “I really wanted to do it in Charlotte.”
The four Hendrick cars finished 1-2-4-5 on Sunday in front of an ebullient crowd of about 50,000, with Larson holding off Chase Elliott (second), William Byron (fourth) and Alex Bowman (fifth). Only Kyle Busch (third) kept it from being an all-Hendrick party.
“He’s built such an amazing empire,” said Larson of Hendrick, who hired the driver after Larson was fired from his previous team in April 2020 for uttering a racial slur. “And everybody there loves to work there, too. I think that’s the most important thing.”
Hendrick’s first driver ended up being Geoff Bodine instead of Richard Petty, and it was Bodine who got him his first win in 1984 just when he was on the verge of deciding his ownership dream maybe just wasn’t going to work out. Hendrick has hired a constellation of stars since then, including Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott (the 2020 NASCAR champion) and now Larson, who won the pole and all four stages of the Coke 600.
Hendrick’s auto business and his NASCAR ownership business both ended up thriving, but it hasn’t been an easy climb for him personally or professionally. In 1997, he was sentenced in a Honda bribery scandal after pleading guilty to one count of mail fraud — Hendrick was fined $250,000 and sentenced to home confinement for 12 months. He was also battling leukemia at the time. For that year of home confinement, he was banished from running his NASCAR operation and his auto business. Hendrick received a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in 2000.
Far more tragic, though, was the crash of a Hendrick Motorsports plane in 2004 in Virginia that killed 10 people. Among the 10 who died was Hendrick’s son Ricky, his brother John, two of his nieces and Randy Dorton, one of his race team’s original five employees.
In some ways, Hendrick has never gotten over that day. He mentioned the deceased Sunday night at his news conference, when asked what his son Ricky — who once was thought to be the heir to the Hendrick empire — would have thought of win No. 269.
“Well, he would be very proud of the fact that the company has done as well as it has,” Hendrick said. “I wish he and Randy, and all the folks on that plane, were here to celebrate it.”
Hendrick Motorsports now will undoubtedly put some distance between itself and everyone else in total wins. Hitting 300 Cup wins seems inevitable, and 400 certainly would be within the realm of possibility. (If you’re wondering who is in third place behind Petty Enterprises, Joe Gibbs Racing has 190).
“We’ve got a lot more races to win,” Hendrick said.
After the way it’s gone the past three weeks — when Hendrick’s cars have gone 1-2 in every race — no one is doubting that.