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When Rick Hendrick, Stricken With Leukemia, Missed the Daytona 500 in 1997, He Got the Surprise of His Life

His racing career may have not lasted very long, but he turned himself into a Hall of Famer in the world of motorsports. Rick Hendrick was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017 as the owner of Hendrick Motorsports. In November of 1996, Hendrick was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. The following year, he missed his first Daytona 500 in 10 years but wound up getting quite the surprise.

Rick Hendrick’s early years

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Rick Hendrick began his racing career at age 14 and started out as a driver himself. He turned to the ownership side of things quickly as he ran in just four races in the course of his NASCAR career. He had two NASCAR Cup Series races as a driver with his first race coming in 1987 and his best finish coming a year later when he finished 63rd.

In the late 1970s, Hendrick founded a drag boat racing team that won three straight titles. “I liked racing boats; there are no speed limits on water,” Hendrick said in 2017, according to The Sporting News. When Hendrick left boat racing, he was looking for a place to store his boats. The property he found was owned by Harry Hyde, an out-of-work NASCAR crew chief who had won the 1970 championship.

Hyde convinced Hendrick to start a racing team. He founded All-Star Racing, now Hendrick Motorsports, in 1984. “It just seems like yesterday we didn’t think we’d even make it through our first year (1984) and now we’ve won 12 of these things, and it’s hard to do,” Hendrick told The Sporting News in 2017 after Jimmie Johnson’s championship. Hendrick has since added another title to his resume.

Hendrick’s life has been marred by tragedy

In 2004, Rick Hendrick’s father, Ricky Hendrick, who was a former NASCAR driver, was killed, along with other Hendrick family members and members of Hendrick Motorsports, in a plane crash. On Oct. 31, 2011, Hendrick and his wife were involved in another plane crash in Key West, Florida. His wife, Linda, had minor injuries while Hendrick broke his clavicle and three ribs.

In November of 1996, Hendrick was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. According to the Tampa Bay Times, Hendrick’s type of cancer is fatal in about 50 percent of those who contract it. Hendrick once compared high cancer fight to a race, according to the Tampa Bay Times.  “At one time, I was a lap down. Now I’m on the same lap (and) I think I’m going to get to the finish line,” he said in 2005.

While treating his leukemia, Hendrick pleaded guilty in 1997 to one count of federal mail fraud involving a scandal with his auto dealerships and Honda. Because of the leukemia, he was sentenced to 12 months of home confinement, three years probation, and was fined $250,000.

Hendrick was forced to miss the 1997 Daytona 500

Hendrick’s cancer has been in remission, but it wasn’t easy. For years, he has undergone chemotherapy and taken the drug Interferon, which has been known for some intense side effects. Through it all, it’s been racing that’s helped him push through.

Hendrick was unable to make the 1997 Daytona 500. It was the first one he had missed in 10 years as an owner. He was struggling with his recent leukemia diagnosis and was crushed he was unable to attend the race.

Although Hendrick was unable to attend, he was pleasantly surprised and given a gift of a lifetime. Not only did his driver, Jeff Gordon, win the race, but two of his other drivers, Terry Labonte and Ricky Craven, finished second and third, respectively. It’s been 25 years since his diagnosis and the 71-year-old Hendrick is still going strong.