Column: Hendrick checking off his own personal bucket list

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hendrick Motorsports started as All-Star Racing in a old shop with wood-paneled walls and just enough room for its eight employees.

Rick Hendrick had cobbled together just enough money to launch that unsponsored NASCAR team for the 1984 season. He had owned City Chevrolet in Charlotte for just over five years, but racing was his first love, so he gave it a go as NASCAR’s growth began sprawling past its Southern borders.

All-Star Racing nearly went broke two months into its inaugural season before a victory by Geoff Bodine — the third choice driver! — saved the season and kept the wheels rolling on what is now the winningest organization in NASCAR history.

That Bodine win at Martinsville in the eighth race of the 1984 season fortified a bond with General Motors that has taken Hendrick to the top of two different industries. Hendrick Automotive Group is the largest privately held group of car dealerships in the United States, and Hendrick Motorsports is NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees.

Hendrick’s playground has always been NASCAR. Exclusively NASCAR, and he’s never really allowed his drivers to play around in other series. They are highly compensated to drive Hendrick Chevrolets and Hendrick didn’t want them getting hurt fulfilling vanity projects.

Well, Hendrick is now 73 and his drivers — young enough to be his grandchildren — want to race anything with wheels. With safety enhancements vastly improved, Hendrick has loosened up and now lets his drivers stretch their legs a bit.

Next up? The Indianapolis 500.

Rick Hendrick, the boss who barely let his drivers ride bicycles during the NASCAR season, has agreed to let Kyle Larson race the Indy 500. Larson will attempt “the Double” and race both the Coca-Cola 600 — a home race held practically within shouting distance of Hendrick Motorsports’ sprawling campus — and the Indy 500 on the same day in late May.

What’s even more eye-popping is that Hendrick will be co-owner of the car. And that will come as he also sends one of NASCAR’s new Next Gen cars to the 24 Hours of Le Mans this June.

That’s right, Hendrick, a hard-line NASCAR lifer with a record 14 Cup Series titles, is crossing races off his very own bucket list. His change in approach for his drivers has given the boss the chance to dabble outside stock cars and in true Hendrick form, he’s not messing around.

Hendrick has utilized his deep resources and put his best people on giving him a chance to race on the biggest stages in the world. Jimmie Johnson helped Hendrick the last two seasons enter the endurance races in the IMSA sports car program. The effort was run by Chad Knaus and sure, IMSA is owned by NASCAR, but it was something different and gave Hendrick skin in the game at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Twelve Hours of Sebring.

That opened discussions on a special NASCAR project for the 24 Hours of Le Mans at its centenary race this June. NASCAR wanted to display its new Next Gen stock car in a special category and Hendrick said he’d run the effort with General Motors.

The deal initially rankled rivals quick to outpoint the Le Mans project gave Hendrick employees unfair access to the Next Gen. There are now data sharing agreements in place and Hendrick is indeed going to Le Mans with a lineup expected to include Johnson.

Last week came word that Hendrick was letting Larson go to Indy in 2024 with McLaren Racing, with Hendrick listed as the co-owner and HendrickCars.com as the sponsor. It’s a partnership with, you guessed it, General Motors and McLaren Racing, which is run by American Zak Brown.

Brown and Jeff Gordon, both racers originally from California, put the Larson deal together as Gordon now handles many of Hendrick Motorsports’ day-to-day deals. Brown is a big dreamer open to any idea, and the chance to bring Rick Hendrick to “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was one worth pursuing.

Larson was the golden ticket because it is Larson’s dream race, and Larson has lobbied Hendrick and Gordon for a chance to race the Indy 500 since joining the team in 2021. Brown struck when Hendrick was most vulnerable.

“Kyle has made it very clear to me that he would love to do it. I never thought it would happen,” Hendrick said.

The real draw is that after all these years, Hendrick is now getting a chance to sample motorsports far outside the NASCAR ovals. He has already tried sports car racing in North America and will go international in June; he’s been dirt racing and short track racing and raced for fun, and now he’s going to try to win the Indy 500.

“For me to do it with Chevrolet, I always wanted to be with a premier team if we ever did do it,” Hendrick said. “To be able to partner with McLaren and have Hendrick Cars on it, that is special to me and our whole organization. A bucket list for any racer.”

Before now, the only known Hendrick bucket list was the obvious car dealer mantra: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

Now he wants to win Daytona. And Indianapolis, too.

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