Drivers try to focus on racing with the tragedy that killed 10 still weighing on their minds.
HAMPTON, Ga. - Brian Vickers' stare was straight ahead and vacant. A black baseball cap pulled down hard on his forehead could not conceal the hurt, or the tears.
"Last Sunday was a sad day. I lost a dear friend," Vickers said, his voice wavering, Friday. "(Those who died) will all be deeply missed for a long time to come until we get to see them again."
Vickers knows this hurt all too well. He lost his best friend, Adam Petty, four years ago in a crash during a Busch series practice at New Hampshire. On Sunday, he lost a friend who felt more like a brother, a former roommate and the man responsible for his big break in NASCAR, Ricky Hendrick. The 24-year-old Hendrick died along with nine others when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed outside of Martinsville, Va. Vickers and Hendrick had become inseparable since Ricky persuaded his father, Rick, to give the unproven Vickers the ride in one of the team's Busch series cars in 2003.
In November of that year, the pair made a stop in Tampa as part of the postseason Busch series tour. They had won a championship together and spent a couple of days before the Orlando awards banquet celebrating at the beach. Their reddish skin and haggard looks suggested they were making the most of their young lives.
Vickers turned 21 the day of the crash, but he appeared to have aged a decade when Hendrick Motorsports' five drivers and crew chiefs held their first news conference since the accident to reflect on the lives of the lost, including team president John Hendrick and engine department head Randy Dorton. Team owner Rick Hendrick, who lost his son, his brother and two nieces, was scheduled to be at Atlanta Motor Speedway but did not attend.
Their sport is one in which ever-present danger casts a certain shadow of imminent doom, in which grief must often be sorted through and compartmentalized. Still this was hard.
"There is a time when you have to move on," Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon said. "I don't know when that time is. I don't know how anybody is going to move past this, but as far as we're concerned, we have a job at hand this weekend. We want to keep this legacy going on. I think they'd be proud of us to come out here and just keep doing what we love doing, what they loved being a part of."
Returning to the track offers the comfort of a task, but a constant reminder of the loss. Lakeland native Joe Nemechek found comfort in the driver's seat when his brother, John, died of injuries sustained in a Truck series race in 1997 at Homestead. Those close to Vickers, who didn't want to answer any questions and spent most of his time Friday staring at the floor, said he was eager for the sanctuary his No. 25 Chevrolet offered. No questions, no talking, just actions and reactions in Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500.
"Here at the track, every driver knows what we have to do," said Nemechek, who drove briefly for Hendrick. "Coming to the racetrack I think makes it a little bit easier. It's been such a tough week, everything has gone so fast. Yesterday we were at the memorial and today we're here qualifying. Everybody is just trying to do the best they can right now.
"It never goes away. You just learn to deal with it a little bit easier each day."
Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of competition Richie Gilmore said the company began coping with the death of its founder not long after he died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
"What (widow) Teresa Earnhardt told us the day we lost Dale was: "Guys, I don't want you moping around because of Dale. He's in a better place,' " Gilmore said. "She told us to think about the people who are here. They're the ones with the tough time. They're the ones that need help."
Going through the motions was all most of Hendrick's 460 employees could manage the day after the accident, said Chad Knaus, the crew chief for Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson.
"There was an emptiness, there was a void, something we did not know how to address or handle or begin to approach," Knaus said. "If you walked in there, you would have seen a ghost town ... but there were a bunch of people there.
"One of the things we learned from Rick and Randy and John is we have to keep going. When (the employees) came in on Tuesday, there was an amazing transformation. Those guys put their heads down and got to work, and they were ready to go to Atlanta."
Ready to move on again.