CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Sidelined the past several weeks by a fast-spreading sinus infection, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick plans to return to the track this weekend after a five-race absence.

Hendrick has not been to the track since Jimmie Johnson helped his boss celebrate his 25th anniversary in NASCAR with a March 29th victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway.

He skipped the next two events, races in Texas and Phoenix, for personal and business reasons.

Then he was stricken with a sinus infection that spread to both his chest and ears, keeping him away from the track another three races. He needed tubes inserted in both ears to fight the infection.

“They say the tubes are for kids, so I guess I’m a 59-year-old kid with ear infections,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve got a weak immune system, and this infection just jumped on me. I was a sick puppy there for about three weeks. But I am much better, feeling more like myself.”

Hendrick’s immune system was weakened by a long, but successful, fight with leukemia 12 years ago.

“If I am not careful, I get knocked on my butt,” said Hendrick, who spent more than four hours with employees Tuesday passing out the championship rings from Johnson’s third title.

The illness kept Hendrick away from wins by Jeff Gordon at Texas, and Mark Martin in Phoenix and Darlington, S.C.

Gordon snapped a 47-race winless streak, the longest of his career, with his Texas win. Martin’s Phoenix victory was his first win since 2005, and his first since joining Hendrick Motorsports at the start of this season.

Hendrick watched all the races he missed on TV, admittedly screaming at his set and often second-guessing strategy through text messages to team vice president Doug Duchardt. He then called his drivers in Victory Lane, a scene often caught on live television that drew attention to his absence.

“It just gets to me not being there. I want to be there with the guys, and I hate that I missed the celebration with Mark and Jeff,” he said. “There were a couple of times I didn’t feel like watching the race at all, and I am sure there were times when Doug Duchardt was wishing I wasn’t watching. I was driving him crazy with all the texting.”

Hendrick said he’ll ease back into at-track activities with the All-Star race this weekend at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, where he traditionally celebrates Charlotte Speedweeks by treating employees from both his motorsports and automotive programs to weekends at the track.

“I’m going to be over there, but I’m going to try to take it easy,” he said. “I’ve learned with my immune system that when I push to go back (to work), I get in trouble.”

AP-ES-05-12-09 1905EDT

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