By Anthony Rhoads
Starting with this weekend's races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hendrick Motorsports drivers are going to try to turn a tragedy into a triumph.
Sunday, a plane crash near Martinsville, Va. killed 10 Hendrick team members and family. The drivers are still reeling from the accident but in a press conference Friday at AMS, they said they are determined more than ever to win and to honor their friends who were killed.
Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers, Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart (who races part-time for Hendrick's Busch team) and crew chiefs Robbie Loomis, Pete Sospenzo, Chad Knaus and Lance McGrew held the press conference Friday to share their feelings about the crash.
Gordon and Johnson have been the most successful drivers this year for Hendrick and are in the chase for the Nextel Cup Championship. Gordon, a four-time champion, stands the best chance at winning the Nextel Cup title this year as he is currently second to Kurt Busch in the standings.
"I've never been so inspired and driven in my life," Gordon said. "We're going to take it and make a positive."
While the drivers are trying to focus on winning and doing the best they can on the track, they are a team in mourning. Those who lost their lives in the crash weren't just colleagues of the drivers, they were considered friends and family.
"I'm still in shock," Gordon said. "It is such a shock; it's something that's unbearable. Getting through something like this takes time. There is a time when you move on but I don't know what that time is. We do have a job at hand this weekend. Hopefully, we can just make them proud."
Brian Vickers, last year's Busch Series champion and Nextel Cup rookie, appeared to be the most devastated team member during Friday's press conference. He kept his head down during much of the press conference and didn't field any questions. He did open the conference with a brief statement about the tragedy and about losing his friend, Ricky Hendrick, the son of team owner Rick Hendrick.
"Last Sunday was a sad day," Vickers said. "It was a sad day for a lot of people. I lost a good friend."
Stewart said not only has the race team pulled together but the entire NASCAR family has shown their support for Hendrick Motorsports this week.
"The racing community is one big family," Stewart said. "It's a hard, long weekend for all of us. We all compete against each other but when a tragedy like this happens they rally around each other."
The fans have also been very supportive this week with flowers, cards, e-mails and other showings of sympathy for the team. The drivers said they appreciate all that the fans have done.
"We have to thank all the fans for their support they've given us," Labonte said. "It means a lot to us to get through it. We'll get through it. This team is going to be stronger than it's ever been."
Sunday, the Hendrick plane, a Beech 200, crashed about seven miles west of the Martinsville airport at approximately 12:30 p.m.
None of the drivers were told about the crash until the end of the race, which Johnson had won.
"The response has been tremendous," Johnson said. "All those people on that airplane were special to me. It was very difficult. It was very tough but I think they would have wanted us to go on. We've got to keep going."
Those who were killed in the crash included Ricky Hendrick, Rick Hendrick's son; John Hendrick, Rick Hendrick's brother and president of the team; Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, John Hendrick's daughters; Joe Jackson; Jeff Turner; Randy Dorton, the team's chief engine builder; Scott Latham, a pilot for Tony Stewart; and pilots Dick Tracy and Liz Morrison.
"Every member of the Hendrick family has a special talent you don't see every day," Gordon said. "His heart was into it. He loved being a part of it. They treated peopled with respect and received respect because of how they treated people."
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)