William Byron’s special tribute prompts emotional memories of joy and pain for Hendrick Motorsports

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DARLINGTON, S.C. – William Byron’s No. 9 Chevrolet will sport a special connection to Rick Hendrick’s late son in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Darlington Raceway.

It’s far from the only reminder that Byron has been providing the NASCAR team owner lately.

As Byron, the sandy-haired 19-year-old with a fair complexion, has excelled in the Xfinity Series this season, his resemblance to Ricky Hendrick, the scion who was among 10 killed in the Oct. 24, 2004 crash of a team plane, has become more obvious – most recently when Byron won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“My daughter was watching Indy, and she texted me right after the race and said, ‘Dad, that’s spooky how much William looks like Ricky,’ ” Rick Hendrick said. “I’m kind of reliving some of Ricky’s early days with watching William now. He’s a special young man. Their mannerisms and everything. William’s super polite.”

William Byron waits in the garage during Xfinity practice at Darlington. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

During Saturday’s NASCAR America and Countdown to Green before the Xfinity race at Darlington, NBCSN ran a feature (video above) on Byron’s throwback tribute (which echoes the scheme that Ricky Hendrick drove to a 2001 win in the Camping World Truck Series) and the origins of the backward hat celebration that Ricky Hendrick inspired after every Hendrick Motorsports victory.

The tradition started through Ricky’s friendship with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who might have started the trend by wearing his hats backward during his first few seasons in NASCAR.

Ricky began mimicking Earnhardt, much to chagrin of his father, and continued the practice after retiring from driving and becoming a full-time car owner who won the 2003 title with Brian Vickers.

“I always said, ‘Don’t turn your hat around, don’t wear your hat in the garage like that,’ ” Hendrick said. “Then he won the championship with Brian Vickers, he turned his hat around on the stage that night. Everybody knew that was his trademark, but I always would tell him not to do it.”

It became a postrace victory tradition at Hendrick in the first race since the plane crash that also took the lives of team president John Hendrick, engine builder Randy Dorton, general manager Jeff Turner. After Jimmie Johnson won at Atlanta Motor Speedway, his crew turned their hats backward and pointed skyward in victory lane, which has become a part of every Hendrick Motorsports celebration.

“We were all very aware of Ricky’s like and his father’s dislike of the hat being worn in that direction,” Johnson said. “Ricky literally would design his hats to look good going backward and have Hendrick Motorsports in a certain spot, the car number in a certain spot. It was something that was just his style and what he was about. Of course, his dad being as buttoned up as he is wasn’t in love with the idea. But now it’s a great tradition, and it makes us all smile when we get to put our hats on backwards.”

It’s one of the only memories Johnson retains from the tumultuous week after the crash. The seven-time champion considered Ricky Hendrick a close friend who quietly helped lobby his father to get Johnson the No. 48 Chevrolet ride.

When Rick Hendrick called to congratulate him on the Atlanta win, both had trouble forming words.

“The emotions were so deep, I recall not being able to understand what he was saying because he was so emotional, and clearly, I was in a similar space, too,” Johnson said. “To lose 10 people, I found my mind would focus on one individual and quickly shift to another. It was almost as if we couldn’t get a break in our minds from the loss and the heartache that came with it. It was a really, really tough period of time. I still don’t know how we even got to Atlanta. It was so emotional and so tough, it’s a wonder we even got to the racetrack. That five-day stretch, there wasn’t a dry eye that entire period of time.”

Though they weren’t on the flight, Johnson’s wife, Chandra, and Rick Hendrick were on the original passenger manifest, which was read to team members after the plane went down.

“I knew my wife was with me at the track, but still that reality of hearing the manifest being read and she could have been on that airplane,” Johnson said. “Just swirling emotions in so many different directions. Just a really tough moment.”

The death of Ricky Hendrick cast doubt on the future at Hendrick Motorsports, which was grooming him to take over the company and allow his father to focus on his automotive empire.

Rick Hendrick had considered leaving NASCAR until a teamwide meeting a few weeks later at its headquarters in Concord.

“We lost so many people that day,” he said. “If you didn’t have a really unbelievably tight company, we wouldn’t have survived. They pulled together and went on to honor those folks.

“Your faith, your family and your friends are really all you’ve got, and that’s what you’re going to leave here with. And I felt that way when I saw William’s car, and I see this kid that looks like (Ricky Hendrick). It’s spiritual. It’s emotional. It’s special.”

Driver-to-Driver with Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’ve got a lot to prove still’

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Jimmie Johnson is in his 17th year of full-time Cup racing and is in the midst the longest winless streak of his career at 42 races.

But the seven-time champion’s competitive drive is as strong as ever.

Johnson sat down with NBC Sports’ Dale Jarrett to discuss his career at this point in the latest edition of Driver-to-Driver.

“I can honestly say I spend more time now than I did my rookie year focusing on my job,” Johnson said. “I think that the support I have from my wife (Chandra), my kids are 7 and 4, to have them watch me be passionate about something has another meaning I didn’t anticipate coming. I’m lovin’ what I’m doing. I wish the results were a little better than what we have right now, but the process of what I’m going through is really fun.”

Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is in a slump. The team is in the middle of the second longest winless streak in its history at 35 races.

Johnson admits it’s hard to know when the right time will be for him to retire.

“The thing I can pull out of it is, don’t pick a number, make sure that fire’s gone out and that fire hasn’t gone out,” Johnson said. “The other thing that’s weighing on me, I don’t want to go out not at my fullest potential and not on my terms. The last thought that’s going to run through my mind is to walk away or, ‘Oh, it’s not going right, time to stop.’ Uh uh. I know I still got it. I’m going to go down swinging. I’ve got a lot to prove still.”

Watch the above video for more.

 

New Hampshire Cup race underway after rain delay

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The Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is underway after a three hour and 24 minute rain delay.

The race had been scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET. The green flag waved at 4:24 p.m. ET

Kurt Busch started from the pole and Martin Truex Jr. started second.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at New Hampshire

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver rediscovers his magic here and locks into the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. wins back-to-back races for the first time in his career.

Daniel McFadin

Kevin Harvick earns a career-best sixth win of the season.

Dan Beaver

Martin Truex Jr. is getting into the same groove he had last year. This week he catches Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Next week, he starts to pull away,

Today’s Cup race at New Hampshire: Start time, lineup and more

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The Cup Series holds its only race of the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway today with the Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301.

Kurt Busch starts on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. starts second.

Here’s all the info you need for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Jean Swift, treasurer of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Counsel, at 12:51 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 1 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 301 laps (318.46 miles) around the 1.058-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 75. Stage 2 ends on Lap 150.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 35

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 7:30 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 11 a.m. Driver introductions are at 12:05 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Vanessa Salvucci will perform the anthem at 12:45 p.m. The Canadian National Anthem will be performed by Kirk Young at 12:42 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race beginning at 1 p.m. Coverage begins at noon with Countdown to Green on NBCSN. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at noon p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 70 degrees and a 78 percent chance of rain and storms at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Denny Hamlin won this race last year over Kyle Larson. Kyle Busch won the playoff race over Larson.

TO THE REAR: Landon Cassill (backup) and Michael McDowell (backup).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the complete starting lineup.