The stars align on eclipse week for Byron, Hendrick for meaningful Martinsville win

The entire company put a great deal into this weekend

Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

It’s apropos, in a sense, that on the weekend prior to a literal celestial event that the stars figuratively aligned to send the most iconic Hendrick Motorsports entry to victory lane after a race that clearly meant so much to all involved.

The history of Hendrick at Martinsville is as storied as a solar eclipse with its first victory with Geoff Bodine in 1984 literally saving the company from a premature closure. It has since won 28 more times at he Virginia short track, more than any other organization in NASCAR history.

And of course, tragically, it was the site of its biggest heartbreak in 2004 with a plane crash took the lives of Ricky Hendrick, Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, Jeff Turner, Randy Dorton, Joe Jackson and Scott Lathram.

In memoriam of all of that, in addition to its 40th anniversary in the Cup Series, Hendrick Motorsports took a fleet of four ruby red cars to the track this weekend driven to succeed at all costs.

Walking to driver intros with William Byron on Sunday morning, communications manager Ashley Ennis half-joked that the script had been written for the current driver of the most iconic car in company history do what it has always done at Martinsville.


“I was like, I don’t know how you had that panned out with us starting 18th, can’t pass at this racetrack,” Byron said.

But he could pass more than anyone else, driving to eighth by the end of the first stage and spending the rest of the day inside the top-five, the entire team executing on the way to their third victory of the season.

It was also the second time Byron and crew chief Rudy Fugle have won at Martinsville together.

Gordon has been a part of countless Martinsville moments for the company, and he felt some nostalgia from the pit box, to his days as a driver, knowing how much this place means to the Concord, North Carolina organization.  

“There’s not a person in our organization didn’t realize winning today how much that was going to mean to Rick Hendrick, Linda Hendrick, to Hendrick Motorsports,” Gordon said. “Gosh, I mean, you look at William, he’s been stepping it up at the big milestone wins for this company.”

Hendrick, who famously wasn’t even at the first win for the team also was not in attendance on Sunday as he was still recovering from knee surgery.

But in his place was nearly 1500 employees, friends and family, some situated in the suites in Turns 1 and 2 and others in the Turn 3 VIP lot.

Byron, Fugle and their contemporaries across the No. 5, No. 9 and No. 48 teams said they were driven to reward their enthusiasm. Hendrick scored a 1-2-3 finish on Sunday with Byron, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott, who also decided the win amongst themselves in overtime.

“There are so many things that are special,” Gordon said. “Immediately looked up on the hill and saw all those ruby red shirts just going nuts. Now they’re out there waiting to have a picture with our whole organization. You just cannot plan it any better, script it any better.”

It is a celestial event, again, after all.

“Of course, when I talked to Rick, hearing his excitement and joy of how special this was, how proud he is of us, this incredible legacy that he’s put in kind of our hands to nurture and take care of and try to keep it going,” Gordon added.

There was some pressure than came along with all of this of course. When Hendrick Motorsports planned the ruby red paint schemes, they only expected a group of 500 or so supporters, but their numbers kept multiplying.

“One day it was 400, the next day it was 700, the next day it was 900,” Gordon said. “Every day we were like, Well, we’re going to have 700. Oh, really, 900?

“To see our folks rally behind this milestone and this moment, this day, get on buses early this morning and come up here. Listen, the music was going. They were partying up there pretty early. They had a good time.

“To be able to cap that off with the victory, like what this is going to do for our company is incredible, right? To be able to have them that engaged with a day like today, our history, but also making history at the same time.”

There are some parallels to the 1997 Daytona 500, where Gordon led Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven to a 1-2-3- finish, and received a phone call from Hendrick, who was not there and battling leukemia at the time.

The similarities is that Labonte and Craven celebrated that win every bit as Gordon and Larson and Elliott did the same on Sunday.

“I’m happy for William, happy for everyone at Hendrick Motorsports,” Elliott said. “It’s really special to have a lot of our folks here, almost everyone, and their families and I hate Rick couldn’t be here today, Linda, but certainly proud and happy to be part of their organization today.”

One way or the other, a Hendrick Motorsports driver was going to win this race, especially in their minds. There were shades of the Gordon and Jimmie Johnson racing for Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th win at Martinsville in 2012.

The 1-2-3 finish seemed secure in the closing laps but the caution immediately gave Gordon flashbacks to being wiped out in a green-white-checkered by Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman, costing the company that triumph that night.

“I jumped up off the pit box practically, off the side,” Gordon said. “I don’t know how Rudy stays so calm.”

Byron said he watched the brakes that failed on the John Hunter Nemechek car falter in real time to bring out the caution that could have robbed him.

Elliott gave Byron a nudge on the restart but then all three fought to maintain the 1-2-3 finish.

“I loved the fight all of our teams had in them today because I saw both Chase and Kyle fighting hard,” Gordon said. “I don’t know if they were fighting hard to try to finish second, they were hoping something happened. I looked at it as they were fighting hard to bring home a 1-2-3. “

Now Byron, who again carries the legacy of Gordon and the No. 24, has won nine of the last 44 races. That is a Gordon and Johnson-esque clip. It matches the level of his champion teammates Larson and Elliott.  

It impresses the hell out of Gordon.

“Right now, they’re in this mode of I don’t want to say cruise control, but they’re just in sync,” Gordon said. “They believe in one another. They go to the racetrack to win. I think they’re pretty disappointed in qualifying. Practice went really well. They made a few adjustments and just battled all day today ’cause it wasn’t easy to pass.

“You just say to yourself, one, he’s super talented. He wants it really bad. He works really hard at it. He’s got a great team around him. As a driver, that’s what you hope for, right? You hope you get in that position to showcase what you’re capable of doing in the right equipment, the right team.”

Now Byron is getting the phone calls in Victory Lane that Gordon used to get and they are coming with regularity. He’s on a special run and he doesn’t take it for granted, celestial destiny, figurative script or otherwise.

“We’ve been working super hard,” Byron said. “I think we’ve learned and refined some things as we get through stretches where we have some difficult runs.

“But there’s less doubt in our team that we can do it. I feel like that is a unique thing that comes with winning races, is knowing you’re capable. If you get everything right and you do your job, you can still win.

“But yeah, today it was obvious. We had a great car, but it was really difficult to get to the front. We had to work hard.”

It’s the Hendrick way.

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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