CONCORD, N.C. – When asked what Rick Hendrick has meant to him, NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip didn’t hesitate.
“If somebody said, ‘You can make one call, you’ve got one shot here, so better make it a good one,’ I’d always call Rick,” he said.
“I’ve never had a greater friend.”
Friday, Hendrick will officially join Waltrip as a Hall of Famer in the class of 2017, and to mark the occasion, the driver was happy to look back at his relationship with the Hendrick Motorsports owner.
Waltrip drove for Hendrick Motorsports from 1987 to 1990, at which point he was already a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion.
He was looking for a change and believed in Hendrick’s vision even with a young race team.
“I’m going to build an organization here that someday will dominate the sport,” Waltrip recalled Hendrick telling him. “Now, that was in 1986, so that’s way out there in 1986, but you know what? His vision and what he said has all come true.”
While at Hendrick Motorsports, Waltrip won nine races – including his first Daytona 500 victory in 1989. That 1989 season saw Waltrip amass six wins.
“The car and the people that he surrounded me with, it was just everything that I could ever ask for,” he said of his time with the organization.
And the support Hendrick provided didn’t end when Waltrip decided to move on to a new venture.
"He was my best ally and always has been."Darrell Waltrip on Rick Hendrick
The driver recalled meeting with Hendrick in the midst of the 1990 season to let him know that he was considering starting his own team. Over lunch, the two discussed the scenario.
“He told me, ‘Look, I think you’d be a lot better to stay here where you are. I think we can do a lot more for you. But if that’s what you want to do, I’ll help you any way I can,’” Waltrip recalled. “And he did.”
When Waltrip left before the 1991 season, Hendrick Motorsports even supplied his new race team with engines.
The driver said they were “the best engines I ever had,” and he appreciated the continued guidance of his former teammates at Hendrick Motorsports – including Hendrick himself.
“He was my best ally and always has been,” Waltrip said. “I’ve never had anybody in my life, across the board, that I could call and say, ‘I need help.’ And it’s, ‘Buddy, help’s on the way.’”
And Waltrip doesn’t see himself as a special case.
“Whether you’re working at the car dealerships or whether you’re working on the race teams or whatever you’re doing, if you’re involved with Rick Hendrick, he worries about you as a person,” he said. “He’s a people person. He always looks at the people first.”
That devotion to everyone around him, Waltrip said, is what makes Hendrick such a unique person.
“I’ve never met anybody quite like him. You look at his history, what he’s gone through, the ups and the downs, the gains and the losses,” he said. “But it never dimmed his spirit. His spirits were always up.”
"If you’re involved with Rick Hendrick, he worries about you as a person."Darrell Waltrip
The driver acknowledged that it is hard to put into words just how much Hendrick has meant in both his career and life in general. But despite the personal impact Hendrick has made across the sport, Waltrip strips all that away when the conversation turns to NASCAR Hall of Fame qualifications.
With Hendrick set to be officially inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday, Waltrip said that whether or not he deems a candidate worthy comes down to one thing.
“The numbers,” he said. “I kind of think Hall of Fame, the first thing you’ve got to look at is numbers.”
And Hendrick meets that criteria as well.
More than 1,000 top-five finishes. Nearly 1,700 top-10s. The second-most Cup victories all-time – 245, a number that leads all owners in modern-era (1972-present) wins. Hendrick’s teams have won at least one Cup-level race each season since 1986 – the longest active streak in the sport.
And most importantly, Hendrick Motorsports has won a record 12 Cup championships. No other major American professional sports team has earned more championships than Hendrick Motorsports since 1984, the organization’s inaugural season.
Needless to say, Waltrip believes Hendrick belongs in the Hall. And the driver is even more excited to see the owner honored for one specific reason.
“It’s voted on by your peers,” he explained. “The people that you compete against, the people that you know, the people that love you and the people that don’t. They vote on you and what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished, and that gets you into the Hall of Fame. So I know it means a lot to him.
“It means a lot to me, too. I’m thrilled for him to get in.”