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Monday, April 3, 2006
Updated: April 7, 5:10 PM ET
Hendrick team soaring under Gordon's tutelage

By Rupen Fofaria
Special to ESPN.com

Martinsville Speedway has become synonymous with the Hendrick Motorsports tragedy. Each visit serves as a reminder of that day when a Hendrick plane, carrying many key personnel and Hendrick family members, crashed and killed 10 on Oct. 24, 2004.

April 2 would have been the 26th birthday for Ricky Hendrick, team owner Rick's son who died in the crash, and the occasion provided an added ounce of hunger to the stable of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch.

In the end, Tony Stewart celebrated in Victory Lane and showed class in tipping his cap to the memory of Ricky and all others on the plane that day. But the Hendrick stable did its part to honor fallen teammates and friends, too. While Stewart rode ahead to take the checkered flag, Gordon, Johnson and Busch staged a spirited battle for second, third and fifth respectively, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. sandwiched in fourth. Not far behind, Vickers came home eighth.

"Between Jeff and I, and it looks like Kyle and Brian [finished well], too, … we're always excited to come up here and race," Johnson said. "The fall race has the anniversary of our airplane going down and the spring race is right about the time of Ricky Hendrick's birthday. As excited as we are to be here to race and put up a good performance, it's also tough and I think between all of us we really wanted to win a race today and take a trophy back to Rick."

Indeed, when Gordon spun his tires on the restart that ended up determining the race, he was equal parts concerned with letting Stewart jump out to an insurmountable lead and keeping from wrecking his mates behind him.

"I was just trying to hold on because I was completely sideways and my teammates behind me were trying not to get into me," Gordon said. "They were racing one another. They got pretty excited. Unfortunately I didn't get as excited as I wanted to for the lead."

The Martinsville finish is indicative of the short season, thus far.

Johnson, Gordon, Busch and Vickers are all among the top 15 in the points right now -- with Johnson leading the standings and Gordon and Busch hanging in the top 10.

Johnson said it's in large part due to the elder statesman of the group: Gordon, the four-time champion.

"I personally think it has a lot to do with Jeff Gordon and what he's done here over the years," said Johnson, adding that the Martinsville finish is a perfect example of Gordon's influence on the group.

"It's one of his stronger tracks," Johnson said, with Gordon seated beside him. "He's come up with a great setup. From my standpoint, I really try to run the same setup and find a way to make it work. I see that same thing going on with Kyle and with Brian. The questions they ask remind me where I was when I first came here the first two years.

"During practice all of us were huddled around Jeff between the two practice sessions on Saturday trying to pick his brain a little bit."

Gordon, while flattered, jokingly put up his guard.

"I'm thinking twice about those conversations now," he said.

And maybe he should be careful, because Johnson continues to assert himself as a championship contender and now Busch and Vickers appear to be on the cusp, as well.

But some of that success is attributable to Gordon's tutelage, which Johnson says is a natural trait Gordon couldn't suppress if he tried.

"He's so generous to share what it takes to get around here," Johnson said, "and at the same time, over the years he's refined such a good package here that we can just get in there, try to do our job as a driver and we've made the most of it."

Gordon said it's part of his job. Certainly, the bulk of his occupation is with obtaining a fifth title for himself and for the Hendrick organization. But he'll never forget Rick Hendrick's faith in him when Gordon was a young racer with a lot to prove. That's why Gordon views his role with the organization as a mentor and someone whose task is to make everyone around him better.

That was a role inherent with respect to Johnson since Gordon is a co-owner of that car. Johnson's transition to Cup was seamless, and he's been a mainstay among the top 10. For Busch and Vickers, though, Gordon made a concerted effort to be generous, and he's ecstatic with the results.

"I'm excited for Brian and Kyle," he said. "[They've found] that rhythm and [are] doing what they need to do out there."

Vickers said that was easier to do than he first anticipated. Not only has having Gordon around helped both young racers, but the overall mentality at Hendrick Motorsports has been pressure-free and nurturing.

"Rick hasn't put any pressure on me, and neither have my sponsors," Vickers said. "The most pressure is coming from myself."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.