NEW YORK -- A year ago, car owner Rick Hendrick sat at the podium in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel with driver Jeff Gordon and soaked up the delights that come with winning a first Winston Cup championship.
It was supposed to be even better the second time around. This year's champion, driver Terry Labonte, and teammate Gordon dominated the 31-race season.
Tonight, Hendrick was supposed to celebrate with Labonte at the annual NASCAR Awards Banquet.
But that was before a federal grand jury indicted Hendrick on charges of conspiring to bribe Honda executives.
At a news conference yesterday, NASCAR president Bill France wanted only to rattle off statistics and figures proving that the 1996 season had been the most successful in NASCAR history. He was forced instead to address the Hendrick situation, but took no follow-up questions.
"NASCAR has no knowledge of the allegations associated with the indictment of Rick Hendrick announced in North Carolina," said France, reading a statement. "However, when it comes to motor sports, we wish we had more car owners like Mr. Hendrick."
Hendrick, 47, controls 66 auto dealerships and is the largest Honda and Saturn dealer in the country. Wednesday, he was indicted on 13 counts of money laundering, one count of conspiracy and one count of mail fraud in the government's investigation of a nationwide kickback scheme involving Honda executives and employees.
"Others might wonder if the timing [of the indictments] was orchestrated to promote an unrelated agenda at the expense of Terry Labonte and his team members," said France, whose organization is involved in a dispute with the government over tobacco advertising in the sport.
Drivers hesitated to comment on the charges, but did not hesitate to say they think the indictment was announced Wednesday to embarrass NASCAR. And, as might be expected in this close-knit sport, everyone closed ranks in support of Hendrick.
"It's very unfortunate," said Bill Elliott. "This overshadows what Terry and his crew guys have worked so hard for all year."
Labonte said Hendrick was to arrive last night and would attend tonight's banquet.
"I don't think it was a coincidence on the timing of the announcement," Labonte said. "The thing I hate about it is for Rick. He's a great person with a great reputation. I hate it because the circumstances aren't going to allow him to enjoy this celebration the way he should."
Pub Date: 12/06/96