CONCORD, N.C. – Winning the 2022 Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence was a strong capstone to a great career and emotional for Kelly DeHart.

DeHart is retiring from her role as a business specialist at Hendrick Motorsports at the end of the year and was presented with the award earlier this month. Team owner Rick Hendrick, vice chairman Jeff Gordon and team president and general manager Jeff Andrews were on hand at a company-wide outing for the presentation. 

"I was so proud that I was thought of in that way," DeHart said. "I sort of just stay low key and all that and they thought of me. I was just so honored to leave that way on such good terms with everybody really supporting my retirement. It was bittersweet."

DeHart has worked at Hendrick Motorsports since 2000. She moved to North Carolina with an interest in racing and had some friends who were involved in what is now known as the NASCAR Xfinity Series. DeHart started out working in the No. 5 shop and has spent nearly 23 years providing critical support to the race teams, travel, shop logistics, shop events and day-to-day operations. Over the years she has worked with many different drivers from Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Casey Mears, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and the current four-driver lineup of Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. During her time at the company, she also met her husband of 18 years, Gary. 

RELATED: Hendrick Motorsports honors employees with 20 years of service

Her coworkers describe her as a tireless worker, someone who "never misses a beat" and someone who "has been a gift to Hendrick Motorsports."

"I work with the most amazing people," DeHart said. "I said this when I accepted the award that they have always treated me with kindness and respect. They come to me when they need something, but they are always so thankful. They are all my friends."

The Papa Joe Hendrick Award of Excellence was first started in 1995. Named after the team owner’s father, it is the top honor given by the organization and recognizes the hard work and dedication to the company by one individual. Recipients are noted for their demonstrated commitment to teamwork, servant leadership, passion and enthusiasm, continuous improvement, integrity and accountability. The award is voted on by fellow employees.

Surprising the recipient has been a tradition of this award. For the 2021 winner, Brian Walsh, he was led to believe he was setting up a meeting on campus and it turned out to be the award ceremony. DeHart realized as the 2022 honoree was being introduced that it was her. 

"I got choked up immediately," she said. "I heard Mr. Andrews say the person started in 2000 and that they were on the 5 team. I was starting to think my husband knew exactly what time we had to be here. Then, they said her, and I was the only girl (with the 5 team then). I immediately started crying. That people think that much of me is so overwhelming. 

"It’s quite an award and I knew Papa Joe. Knowing him and knowing why that award is presented because we all loved him is even more special. He would just come around on Mondays after the race and he would always talk about the race, but he would always check in with me. He was just a cool guy."

The award comes as the perfect sendoff to a stellar 23-year-career at Hendrick Motorsports.

"It’s perfect," DeHart said of winning the award right before her retirement. "I was feeling a little guilty. I hate to leave everybody but it makes me feel that they are behind me. They know it’s time for me to be home with my husband - he’s put a lot of years in here too – and enjoy a life of retirement that we have worked so hard for."