Jeff Gordon, talks to the press during testing for the Subway 500 NEXTEL stock car race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Saturday, Oct. 23, 2004. Gordon has driven for Hendrick Motorsports since his Cup debut and has ben undoubtably affected by the recent plane crash deaths.
AP Photo/Don Petersen
CHARLOTTE, N.C. Ricky Hendrick was like a little brother to Jeff Gordon.
As a 12-year-old boy, Ricky idolized Gordon when he began driving for Hendrick's father in 1992. Later, when he tried to become a racer himself, the four-time NASCAR champion was his mentor.
Their relationship grew, and as a young adult Ricky provided a little guidance of his own helping Gordon through his very public divorce two years ago and easing him back into the Charlotte social scene.
Now, Ricky's death and those of nine others in the crash Sunday of a Hendrick Motorsports plane, will almost certainly affect Gordon in his bid for a fifth Cup title.
How so remains to be seen, but fellow drivers believe Gordon will rise to the challenge.
''Jeff Gordon has exhibited over a long period of time to be the utmost professional,'' Jeff Burton said. ''He and Ricky I'm sure did a lot of things together. I know that will be very difficult.
''On the other hand, knowing Jeff Gordon, I wouldn't be surprised to see this springing him into running better than they've been running.''
Gordon, second in the championship standings with four races to go, has used adversity as a motivator before especially when it concerns Hendrick Motorsports.
He has driven for no other team since his Cup debut, and now has a lifetime contract and part ownership in the company.
He won his first series championship in 1995 and wrapped up his second in 1997 one month after Hendrick was diagnosed with leukemia. Gordon added a third title the next season as Hendrick battled the disease that nearly killed him and kept him away from the race track.
''Jeff is extremely professional,'' Burton said. ''That team is extremely gifted. It wouldn't surprise me for them to use this as motivation much as they did when Rick was dealing with his leukemia.''
It's possible the recent tragedy also could further spark the comeback of Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson was the most dominant driver for the first seven months of the season, then slumped when NASCAR's 10-race playoff system began. He dropped to ninth in the standings before consecutive victories the past two weeks vaulted him back into fourth place.
It might take a collapse from leader Kurt Busch, Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Johnson to win the title, but garage rivals believe the Hendrick teammates will be on a mission over the final month of the season.
Others killed in the plane crash were company president John Hendrick, general manager Jeff Turner, and chief engine builder Randy Dorton, constantly credited for making the power supply in the Hendrick cars durable each and every week.
''This means a lot to those guys they're going to keep their heads up, I'm sure,'' driver Greg Biffle said. ''In this business we always say, 'That's what they would want us to do.' And it's the truth.
''Randy wanted those guys to win the championship. That's what he would want. He doesn't want them to give up or miss a beat. That's what he built all that stuff for. He's probably got the rest of the engines built for the season.''
No matter how motivated they now are, they'll face a stiff challenge from Busch, who takes a 96-point lead into Atlanta this weekend.
Busch has finished sixth or better in all six of the Chase races, and is looking very difficult to beat. But as he heads into Atlanta, like everyone else in the NASCAR garage, Busch is thinking about the Hendrick family.
''It's certainly something that illustrates how close-knit the entire racing community really is, and right now we're all just thinking and praying for all of the families,'' Busch said.
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