On Friday morning, before he jumped on a Zoom conference with reporters, Rick Hendrick swapped stories and reminiscences with Jimmie Johnson, his seven-time champion driver.
Hendrick has gone through significant partings before — with Jeff Gordon, who put Hendrick Motorsports on the map more than any other driver, and also with Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s long-time most popular driver.
With Johnson racing for the last time as a full-time NASCAR driver Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, the emotions are bubbling to the surface again.
“I get super close to all of my guys,” Hendrick said. “They’re all like family to me. When the realization that this is the last race, whether it’s Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon… it meant so much to me. Dale, he filled a void. Jimmie, I won’t say I raised him, but he’s been with me his entire career. I’ve watched him as a rookie come up to be a champion.
“The good news is I try to tell myself that I’m going to have a relationship with these guys. It’s not going to end. That’s what Jimmie and I were talking about today. We’re still family. We’re going to do things together. But the emotional side of seeing this history come to an end with all of these guys, it’s been real emotional.”
Johnson’s career with Hendrick has spanned two decades and includes 83 Cup victories — most by far among active drivers — in addition to the seven titles, which included a record streak of five in a row from 2006 through 2010.
“I just have to reflect back to the guy that got on the airplane with me with a T-shirt on,” Hendrick said. “I waited at the end of a race to bring him home. Then he becomes the champion, then he gets married, then he has kids.
“I think the thing about Jimmie through all that, he’s the same Jimmie Johnson. Never a cross word with him. Never asked him to do anything that he didn’t do. He’s just a guy, never hear him say anything about anybody else. He’s as close to perfect as you can get to be a competitor that can do what he can do on the racetrack. Just a super individual.”