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Fire, Ice and the Kid : With an Owner Like Hendrick, This Is Truly a Team for the Ages

June 18, 1997|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're Fire, Ice and the Kid.

Wonder Boy, the Ironman and Ricky.

NASCAR's glamour driver, a throwback to tradition and a young man who figures he has finally gotten a break.

They are Team Hendrick, or actually Hendrick Motorsports. They drive under a banner that claims 65 Winston Cup victories over 14 seasons and could pass $40 million in earnings this weekend.

And they are three separate teams with three distinctly different drivers and three crew chiefs, but one owner they all pay homage to.

"He is the leader," says Ricky Craven, "the Kid," of Rick Hendrick. "I didn't realize until I got here just how much of a presence he has. Now I understand why, in my opinion, Jeff Gordon will be here his entire career. Why Terry Labonte will probably end his career here. And why I hope to end my career here. It's the place to be."

Hendrick's drivers are the scourge of NASCAR, disparaged in some garages, envied in most and a target every time they go onto the track.

"My teammates are my fiercest competitors," says Gordon, dubbed "Wonder Boy" by Dale Earnhardt, then in derision but perhaps now in envy.

"There have been times when I've finished second to Terry, and there have been times Terry's finished second to me. And Ricky Craven, he was right there at Daytona. And Ricky's the new member."

They are a compilation of talent, money and resources, with information shared in Tuesday meetings in Charlotte, equipment shared in the shop, chassis and engines from one place. But they're not clones, and they don't drive clones. In so many ways, they are much more different than the Chevrolets they will cruise around California Speedway on Sunday.

And that's the way they want it.

*

Me, I like to lead a lot of laps. I like to go up there and take charge any way I can, and if I've got to push a lot of extra effort to win, then I'll do that.

--Jeff Gordon

He's racing's answer to Tiger Woods, or maybe it's the other way around because before Woods was a freshman at Stanford, Gordon, now 25, was standing in Victory Circle at Charlotte on his way to being NASCAR's rookie of the year in 1994.

Since then, 24 victories later, he's become the poster child for the new NASCAR, famed in story, song and Pepsi commercials with Shaquille O'Neal and Michael J. Fox.

Gordon to O'Neal and Fox: "I'll drive."

"I think we're starting to be recognized among other athletes, which is exciting, and that's the part away from the racetrack that I enjoy," says Gordon. "And it's the part I hope I can enjoy even more, but it still gets down to driving the race car. That's the part that creates those opportunities."

He grew up in the sport, moved to Indiana as a youngster by a mother and stepfather who learned that the kid, who already had shown he could drive by racing go-karts and quarter-midgets as a 5-year-old, couldn't do it as an unlicensed driver in Vallejo, Calif.

A national champion quarter-midget driver at 8 and 10, midget champion at 19, sprint car and Busch Grand National champion at 20.

People magazine. Cover of Parade. Golf with Greg Norman, Arnold Palmer, John Daly, John Cook. Married a beauty queen who tapes bible verses to his car. Met her--where else?--in Victory Lane at Daytona.

Does it get any better than that?

It could, which is why Gordon has developed enmity among racing fans, who are fiercely loyal. He can't hear it over the sound and fury of a race car, but he is booed often and loudly by people who remember the days when every race was a crapshoot, or remember when Earnhardt or Bill Elliott dominated the series.

Gordon has become like the New York Yankees of the 1950s and '60s: You either love him or hate him.

Craven loves him.

"My hope is to become as good as Jeff Gordon," he says. "My goal is before the end of the year, before the end of my career, to be as good as he is because he is the best Winston Cup driver in the business right now. He's got it all going his way."

Even Earnhardt, who gives quarter to no one, has grudging respect. "I'd like to be racing door-to-door with him right now," he says.

*

I just want to lead the last lap.

--Terry Labonte

He's Ice--cool, calm, collected and wise enough to know that if his car isn't strong enough to win a race, well, second is almost as good in the points race.

Labonte won it last year, finishing second seven times and winning only two races.

Gordon won 10 races last year, finishing second to Labonte in the points standings. Gordon won the points title in 1995.

Labonte is also "the Ironman," with a Winston Cup-record 551 consecutive starts.

He is taciturn, thinking out a response before he gives it, and a steady professional who probably doesn't even read People or Parade.

Forget Shaq and Pepsi. Labonte is sponsored by Kellogg's, and his commercials usually involve him telling brother Bobby, who drives for the Joe Gibbs team, or Craven to stay in line behind him.

He's spent a career being overlooked, coming into NASCAR racing in a freshman class with Earnhardt and Harry Gant, and now operating in the shadow of Gordon.

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