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Hendrick team goes back to work

HAMPTON, Ga. — Jeff Gordon gnawed at his lips, struggling to contain the tears that were so desperate to escape. He wants to make some sense of it all, but that will take time.

So, Gordon will try to soothe his emotional scars in the seat of a race car. Maybe he'll find solace at 190 mph. Maybe he'll be able to honor those friends who died in a plane crash last weekend.

"I've never been so inspired and driven in my life," Gordon said Friday.

Gordon and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates went very public with their grieving at Atlanta Motor Speedway, appearing together just five days after the Virginia plane crash that killed all 10 people aboard. The son, brother and twin nieces of team owner Rick Hendrick were among those killed. The team also lost its general manager and chief engine builder.

"Getting through something like this is going to take time," Gordon said. "Yeah, there is a time when you have to move on. I don't know when that is."

Certainly, it won't come this weekend. But, in a sport that carries the somber threat of death at every turn, Gordon and his teammates — Jimmie Johnson, Terry Labonte and Brian Vickers — know it's time to go back to work.

Gordon and Johnson are in contention for the Nextel Cup championship with only four races left in the season. Sunday's Bass Pro Shops MBNA 500 will likely have a huge impact on their title hopes.

"Here we are at the racetrack," said Johnson, who has won the last two races and is fourth in the season standings. "We have to get to work and try to do it. That doesn't mean the grieving isn't going to continue, and the pain ... we're all going through a tremendous amount of pain."

Gordon is second in the standings, trailing Kurt Busch by 96 points. It's an imposing deficit to overcome, but hardly unattainable.

"I think it would be a great story to win this championship," said Robbie Loomis, Gordon's crew chief. "The biggest thing that's going to help is the support for one another, the love we can give to one another every day, and just doing our job.

"That's what they'd want us to do, and we're going to do it well."

Vickers was hit especially hard by the tragedy.

His No. 25 car was owned by Hendrick's 24-year-old son, Ricky, who gave up his own racing career after being injured in a crash. In just two years behind the wall, the younger Hendrick showed plenty of business savvy. In all likelihood, he would have been running the family's entire operation someday.

Vickers came along with his teammates to the infield media center, but he didn't want to answer any questions. He made a short statement, then spent most of his time staring at the floor.

"I lost a dear friend," Vickers said, his voice wavering. "They will all be deeply missed for a long time to come — until we all get a chance to see them again."

Beyond the enormous personal toll, the crash took many of the key players in one of NASCAR's most prominent teams.

Randy Dorton ran the engine-building department, ensuring there was enough power under the hood for Gordon to win all four of his Cup titles and Labonte to capture the second championship of his career.

General manager Jeff Turner ran the business side of things, overseeing a massive operation that employs more than 400 workers at its Charlotte, N.C.-based compound.

Johnson managed a smile as he recalled his first career victory at California Speedway. While spinning his tires to celebrate, he heard Dorton's voice over the radio saying, "Easy on that thing, take it easy."

"I kept going and threw all the rods out the side of the engine," Johnson said. "The first person I saw in victory lane was Randy. This thing was dripping oil everywhere. I felt horrible. I destroyed that race-winning engine."

Jeff Andrews, who was Dorton's right-hand man, will move up to run the engine department. He already was handling many of the day-to-day duties.

"Randy's organization is extraordinarily deep," said Patrick Perkins, the team's director of marketing. "Randy was the visionary, but those guys below him took care of fulfilling the vision and setting the vision, too."

Rick Hendrick won't be attending Sunday's race, and no one knows when he'll resume his role in the day-to-day operations. In the meantime, he's appointed close confidant Bobby Rice to keep an eye on things.

Rice, partner in a North Carolina accounting firm, has long been involved with Hendrick's massive network of car dealerships. Those who already worked under Turner will take on added responsibilities.

"We will miss the leadership of a person like Jeff Turner," Perkins said. "His talents were so incredible. But he brought us up well. We'll pick up the slack."

While the goals haven't changed, everyone has different perspective on life.

Gordon showed off a blue wristband that says "Life Is A Team Sport" — a symbol of the bone-marrow donor organization started by Rick Hendrick after he was diagnosed with leukemia.

The message never seemed more poignant.

"Take time to think about those people you love, how you appreciate them, and thank them while you can," Loomis said. "When we're young, we think life goes on forever."