HOMESTEAD - Rick Hendrick took a few more steps toward normalcy Saturday, onto a racetrack for the first time since 10 people - including his son, brother and two nieces - were killed in a team plane crash Oct. 24 outside Martinsville, Va.
In his first public comments since the Beech 200 King Air collided with a mountainside after missing its approach, Hendrick, 53, thanked those who had lent support, including NASCAR driver Kyle Petty, whose son, Adam, died in a racing accident in 2000.
"This is going to be kind of hard for me," Hendrick said. "So I'm going to do the best I can."
Hendrick, who in 20 years has built one of NASCAR's premier teams, winning five Winston Cup championships, took his position on the pit box of Busch series rookie of the year Kyle Busch on Saturday and will perform his normal duties today when Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon race for the Nextel Cup championship in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hendrick had telephoned his congratulations at Atlanta and planned to fly to Darlington last weekend before deciding he was not ready.
"When we first came back to the track it was not an easy thing," Johnson said. "As excited as I am to see him here, I know (Saturday and today) are going to be very tough for him. Maybe by the beginning of next year, it'll be a little easier to come back to the track."
Hendrick credited his 450-person organization for its ability to persevere. Johnson learned of the crash after winning the Martinsville race and won the next week in Atlanta. He has victories in four of the past five races.
"This has been one of the best seasons and one of the worst at the same time," Hendrick said. "I'm proud of those statistics, but I'm more proud of the fact that these guys and the folks at Hendrick Motorsports not only took care of my family but the other families - and it's still happening. The organization had a job to do, and they showed up in Atlanta, and they raced, and we were fortunate enough to win." Hendrick did not lay out any plans to fill the vacancies left by the deaths of Ricky Hendrick, who was being groomed to run the team, president John Hendrick, general manager Jeff Turner or chief engine-builder Randy Dorton.
"I can't replace my family and I can't replace people like Randy Dorton and Jeff Turner," Hendrick said, "But we're a strong group and we're committed and the way we close those holes is together, each one of us takes a piece."