Long: William Byron's win a celebration 40 years in the making at Hendrick Motorsports

MARTINSVILLE, Va. — The man stood in an open field and envisioned a future no one saw.

He was a dreamer, but dreams don’t always come true.

The buildings that would rise on the North Carolina farmland weren’t his. The location would be home to someone else.

But his vision remained — and emerged a few miles away. That would be the home to Hendrick Motorsports, a sprawling complex that Rick Hendrick imagined when sought land for a NASCAR team he didn’t have.

Yes, he was a dreamer. And yes, dreams can come true.

Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, William Byron led a 1-2-3 finish for Hendrick Motorsports — the sport’s winningest team with 305 Cup victories. This marked the first time a Cup team took the top three spots at this track, which has hosted NASCAR races since 1949.

Adding to this moment is that Byron’s win came in the 40th anniversary celebration season for Hendrick Motorsports. The team had about 1,500 employees, family members and friends dressed in ruby shirts and hats, in tents outside of Turn 2 of the half-mile track.

A party was held here because this is where the organization’s first win came in 1984 with Geoff Bodine, amid concerns the team could shut its doors before the first season was over.

That win saved the organization and Hendrick built the sports empire he foresaw.

“I was impressed with Rick’s confidence that he was one day going to do it,” Gary Nelson said, speaking about two hours before the start of Sunday’s race.

Nelson is among many who provided the foundation for Hendrick Motorsports.

Hendrick hired Nelson in 1985 to be crew chief for a second team at Hendrick Motorsports — an idea unheard of in the sport at the time. There weren’t teammates in racing. It was you vs. everybody else. No friends.

“I went over and tried to be a teammate,” Nelson said. “I didn’t know how to be a teammate.”

Neither did his teammate. Harry Hyde was the crew chief for Tim Richmond in 1986, while Nelson worked with Bodine.

At one point with both cars not running equally, Hendrick called Hyde and Nelson to his office at City Chevrolet to hash out matters. Consider it the original milk-and-cookies meeting — without the snacks — and years before Hendrick held such a meeting for Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

Nelson explained in the meeting what he was doing with his cars. Hyde then told him everything he was doing wrong.

“They could have made a movie about it,” Nelson jokes. “They did.”

Hyde was the inspiration for Harry Hogge, played by Robert Duvall, in “Days of Thunder,” and Randy Quaid’s role as the team owner was loosely based on Hendrick.

Sometimes life is better than the movies.

“He changed the whole sport,” Nelson said of Hendrick and his impact on NASCAR. “Right now, when I see the teamwork that goes on … I see it all because of Rick.”

That teamwork was evident this weekend. When the series last raced Martinsville in October, Kyle Larson was the only Hendrick driver to finish in the top 10, placing sixth. For a team that has been dominant at this track, the results were eye-opening.

“I think most of us in life, when we struggle, we have challenges,” said Jeff Gordon, vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. "I think those are sort of the lessons you learn the most from.”

All four Hendrick cars finished in the top 10 Sunday.

NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400
NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out 400

Martinsville Speedway Cup results: William Byron wins

All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished inside the top 10 at Martinsville.

“They certainly hit the rocket boosters there in the third stage,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished 11th. “They took off. You knew they were going to be highly motivated coming into this weekend.

“I love the burgundy cars. I love that they all look the same. I know this place means a lot to Rick and you got to tip your hat and congratulate them for executing a great race.”

While Byron did his burnout and celebrated his third win of the season, Gordon called his boss. Hendrick was scheduled to have driven the pace car as part of the day’s celebration after Gordon and Bodine gave the command, but recent knee surgery sidelined Hendrick, so he was home.

Gordon and Hendrick had been in communication throughout the race, Hendrick texting as the cars ran well. Then when the cars were further in the field, Hendrick inquired what was wrong. As the 400-lap race neared the end, Gordon put away his phone. He wouldn’t be taking messages from his boss. Gordon was too caught in the emotions of what could happen.

But when Hendrick answered Gordon’s call after there race, all Gordon heard was some noise on the other end of the line.

“Are you there?” Gordon asked. “Are you there?”

Hendrick answered and they rejoiced in Byron’s accomplishment and seeing the team dominate the race.

"He was just super excited, so proud,” Gordon said.

There have been many such moments through the years for Hendrick Motorsports. Kyle Larson gave the team it’s 269th victory by winning the 2021 Coca-Cola 600. That moved Hendrick Motorsports past Petty Enterprises for the winningest Cup team in series history. Larson knows what such moments mean for the organization.

He’s seen William Byron deliver several special moments, including the team’s 300th win last September at Texas and a Daytona 500 win in February that was Hendrick’s first since 2014.

Then came Sunday’s win. On a day of celebration.

“Days like today, those milestones, they are going to mean something,” Larson said. “They meant a lot then, but they’re going to mean even more down the road, that history within Hendrick.”