Jeff Gordon is more than just a driver to Rick Hendrick.
When Hendrick Motorsports founder and owner Rick signed Jeff Gordon with no sponsor over two decades ago, he knew there was something special about him, but I doubt even he could have envisioned what Gordon would go on to accomplish.
"It would just be a fairy-tale story. I think it would probably be the biggest championship won in the last I don't know how many years. I don't ever remember an athlete doing that."
Oddly enough, that profound statement from Mr. Hendrick regarding the possibility that Jeff Gordon could retire as a champion feels like an understatement.
I've never seen him rattled, never seen him super nervous when a race starts, and always has control of what he thinks is happening in the race
Rick Hendrick on Jeff Gordon
Gordon is a veteran racer, an icon of the sport and a large contingent of fans would say he is past his prime. It's been 14 years since he sat at the head table and never has the driver of the No. 24 won a championship in the Chase era.
Despite 11 owner titles, none would compare to Gordon's fifth
After struggling through the regular season, he has rocketed into contention for the Cup, winning his first race of the season just a few weeks ago at Martinsville. Hendrick Motorsports has enjoyed incredible success since its inception, but even Rick agrees that none of the previous eleven would compare to Gordon going out on top this weekend.
"When you start thinking about your first, Jimmie winning five in a row, all that is important, but if you think about what one individual has meant to so many, and for him to go out, I would say it would be the most important one we've ever won.
When you can deal with a professional athlete and you can go 23 years and you don't need a lawyer, you can take a handshake, and we've never had a disagreement, I think that's tremendous respect for each other.
Rich Hendrick on relationship with Jeff Gordon
"I think we'll all go bananas. It'll be just like what you saw at Martinsville on steroids, because everybody will be so proud and happy for him and the fact that he can -- and some of you guys are the ones that said it to me early; it's a walk-off home run, and I don't know how it could get any sweeter than to see a guy, especially for me, that meant so much to me personally, to our organization, could end his career that way."
When it comes to this weekend, Hendrick believes it would be a futile effort to try and play mind games with the seasoned veteran, which is why it was no surprise that physiological warfare was absent from Thursday's Championship 4 press conference.
"I've never seen him rattled, never seen him super nervous when a race starts, and always has control of what he thinks is happening in the race, and he's just gotten better and better with that as the years have gone on. So he knows what's on the line here for this one last shot, and I'm just really happy for him that we're in this position for him and for the team, Alan (Gustafson), and everyone."
Family-like bond between driver and owner
The respect between driver and owner is almost palpable in regards to these two. And Rick's admiration for Gordon goes far beyond on-track ability, but who he is as a person.
"He connects with everybody. He connects with young, old, male, female. You know, he's been -- he never did anything to alienate anyone. The only reason they didn't like him is because he won too much. But he's never been disrespectful to anyone or any driver. He created such a role model or a total package.
"He's just got all that talent."
In his 23 years with the organization, Gordon has grown to become more than just a successful driver at Hendrick Motorsports. He has become family.
"I don't know whether he's like a younger brother or a son, but it's both the same. He's family to me. I love him like he was my brother or my son. He has been there for me, and I've been there for him. When you can deal with a professional athlete and you can go 23 years and you don't need a lawyer, you can take a handshake, and we've never had a disagreement, I think that's tremendous respect for each other.
"He's a rare commodity."