DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Winston Cup car owner Rick Hendrick has just returned to his motor home inside Daytona International Speedway. He gets a soda from the refrigerator and slides into a leather seat by a dining table.
"Do you remember how the garages used to be?" he said. "Remember those old tables that used to be between the two rows of cars in there, the work tables, and how you could walk in and find the drivers sitting on them in front of their cars?
"I walked in there the other day and they're all gone. I couldn't find a driver. Heck, I couldn't even find an owner. I feel like I've been in a time capsule for three years."
The owner is one of the most successful in Winston Cup history, with his teams having won four of the past five Cup championships.
The end result was Hendrick, seriously ill, pleading guilty to one charge of mail fraud. He was sentenced and spent all of 1998 under house arrest. That detention plus the impact of his illness has kept him away from the sport for most of the past three years.
In his first one-on-one interview in that time, Hendrick addressed his illness, his legal troubles and his happiness at being back on the racing scene with the leukemia in remission.
"I hate to admit I never thought about getting older or thought of dying," said Hendrick, 50. "I put my family behind my business and racing. I didn't spend the time I should have. I was so caught up in the day-to-day -- there was always another deal.
"Now I notice the temperature is nice and the sky is blue. I don't want to be too sentimental, but I never thought I'd feel this good again in my life."
Out of seclusion
Hendrick was free to return to racing last year, but he was still receiving leukemia treatments, injecting himself twice a day with Ara-C, a relatively new drug, that he credits with making the difference. He looked ill, felt ill and, aside from a brief appearance at Daytona for qualifying, was seldom seen outside his team's home compound in North Carolina.
Now, he has energy, is tanned and is enjoying his return to the sport.
"I imagine the ones who know Rick don't think he did anything wrong and those who don't probably think a lot of different things and think he has a black mark against him," said driver Ricky Rudd, when asked about the federal investigation.
Rudd drove for Hendrick from 1990 to 1993.
"I know him firsthand and he has always been a class act," Rudd said. "He did everything he ever told me he'd do.
"I'm not defending him or taking sides. The court system made its decision and it's over."
Hendrick has three cars in tomorrow's Daytona 500. Three-time Winston Cup champion and defending 500 champ Jeff Gordon will start 11th, two-time Cup champ Terry Labonte will start 25th, and Jerry Nadeau, who is new to the Hendrick organization this season, starts 20th.
Fans extend beyond team
In the garages Hendrick has been warmly greeted. Wednesday evening, when the Craftsman Truck Series qualifying here continued past 7 p.m., one of Hendrick's crewmen came near tears when he saw his boss still had enough energy to be in the garage at the end of the day.
But it isn't only his people who are happy.
"The guy almost lost his life," Rusty Wallace said. "Thank God he's got his health back. I don't care if he did it or not. He's an awesome human being. If he did something wrong, I promise you everyone did it."
He was referring to the American Honda Motor Co. bribery and kickback scandal, in which Hendrick was among 23 defendants convicted in federal court of participating in a scheme that rewarded participating dealerships with the best inventories of cars. His plea bargain resulted in a $250,000 fine, a three-year probation and one year of home detention.
Too sick to fight
"That sentence probably saved my life," Hendrick said. "I wanted to go to court and present my side. My attorneys wanted to go to court. But my doctor asked me: 'Do you want to live?'
"I doubt I'd be here if I hadn't made that decision. I would have killed myself trying to get out and about and it took every piece of energy I had just to tolerate the medication mainly, I laid around like a big potato and slept."
He said he did think about what people would think of him for not trying to clear his name.
"I'm a fighter," Hendrick said. "I don't like to give up on anything, but if you think you're not going to live and you're so sick that you can't focus or concentrate on a conversation -- it becomes a no-brainer."
He also characterized the accusations against him as "trivial."
"I got my hand slapped for something I didn't think was wrong anyway," he said. "A man asked me to help him buy a house and I did. There was no evidence that I got cars for it.
"I buy a lot of houses for people who are homeless or sick or handicapped. I have a stack of requests from people who need help that is this high," he said, raising his hand a good six inches off the tabletop. "Someone comes to me and I help them. It makes you feel good to help people."
Feel-good stories abound
You don't have to go far in the garage to find stories about a good deed by Hendrick.
Wallace recalls his championship season and how Hendrick gave money, motors and technical help to keep the Raymond Beadle-owned team from folding.
"Everybody likes to see Rick," Wallace said. "I think people really missed him."
Stoic seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt also becomes emotional when asked about Hendrick.
"I admire someone who can go through the things he has, the illness and the other situation," Earnhardt said. "To see him and his wife, Linda, together, to see how they are there for each other, it just makes you feel good. Rick seems to be enjoying life more and appreciating what he has. The same with Mr. France, it's been so good to see him out here in the garages, too."
NASCAR president Bill France Jr. has cancer and has been absent from much of the day-to-day operations over the past four months. But this week he has been around the garages, too.
"I've talked to Rick some," France said. "I've seen him twice since the first of the year. If you compare what he went through with what I've gone through, this is like a Girl Scout camp for me. He was on [three] years of treatment."
And while France has been able to keep up with business via fax and phone, it was all Hendrick could do to get through his day.
Now, however, his illness is in remission. And, he said, the Honda case seems a long time ago.
"I do have some bitterness," he said. "But I believe more information will be coming out [on the Honda investigation] that will clear up what happened."
Driven through bitterness
In the meantime, his goals haven't changed. He still wants to win.
"I'm not in this to hang out and socialize and be part of the scene," he said. "I want to win championships and I've had the number eight in my mind for a long time. I'd like to do that. Eight total, with all my Winston Cup teams."
Already, despite his teams' struggles to find good handling here, he said he believes one of his cars can survive and win tomorrow, just as he has over the past three years.
"I feel I've got this second chance," Hendrick said. "I hope and pray I'll stay in remission, but it's like walking around with a hand grenade in your pocket with the pin out and never knowing when it is going to go off."
When: Tomorrow, noon
Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.
Pole-sitter: Dale Jarrett (191.091 mph)
TV: Chs. 13, 9