Hendrick gets big win off track, emotional victory on track
What a week for Hendrick Motorsports, which scored its first victory in NASCAR's version of a courtroom and its second win on the track at Richmond Raceway.
NASCAR's winningest team had received the largest penalty ever issued to a single organization for illegal modifications to supplier-provided parts on the Next Gen car. Hendrick Motorsports appealed and, in a rare overruling, a three-person panel last week reversed a significant portion of the penalty.
The celebration came Sunday when Kyle Larson picked up his first win of the season on what would have been the late Ricky Hendrick’s 43rd birthday. The winning Chevrolet at Richmond was painted to replicate the scheme Ricky Hendrick used before his death in a 2004 plane crash.
“Me racing this 5 car has been special, but especially this paint scheme,” said Larson, who copped to watching YouTube videos last week of his 2021 championship season to “remind myself that I used to be good.”
The videos reminded him of his fist win with Hendrick in 2021 at Las Vegas, which was his first race with Ricky Hendrick's old paint scheme. A win later that season at Kansas, Larson said, "I think it was 17 years to the date of the accident, and then now this, winning on his birthday.
“It’s all really special and kind of crazy kind of how things maybe work out from the power above,” Larson added.
Ricky Hendrick was the only son of team owner Rick Hendrick and the heir to the NASCAR juggernaut. He was among 10 people killed when a Hendrick plane crashed into a Virginia mountain en route to a race at Martinsville Speedway. Also killed in the crash was Rick Hendrick's brother, his twin nieces, the Hendrick Motorsports general manager and lead engine builder.
Hendrick Motorsports has celebrated their lost loved ones many times in the nearly 19 years since the crash, but there's no greater joy for Rick Hendrick than watching Larson pilot and win in a car that reminds him of his late son.
Jeff Gordon, who is now vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports and assuming responsibilities that presumably would have fallen to Ricky Hendrick, said Larson's win at Richmond makes the organization wonder what might have been if not for the plane crash.
“What Ricky’s presence would do for us if he was here with us today and what his leadership ... you know, he was so passionate about Hendrick Motorsports and racing,” Gordon said. "I was talking to Rick and he was emotional and excited, and so his presence is still here.
“Our folks try to do everything they can to make Rick Hendrick proud. But when you know what Ricky’s impact could have been on our company and the people and the 5 car and that paint scheme and what that means to the whole company, it’s very rewarding to know that we’re still kind of thinking of him and paying tribute to him as often as we can. Maybe he is looking down on us as well.”
Hendrick Motorsports persevered since NASCAR confiscated its modified parts, stripped three of the four Hendrick drivers of 100 points each and suspended all four crew chiefs for four weeks, with $100,000 fines apiece. But William Byron and Larson have each scored wins in the month since, and the appeals panel restored the points deductions — an overruling of NASCAR that has Alex Bowman as the current points leader. Byron is ranked fourth and Larson sixth.
Chase Elliott is still out with a broken leg, and replacement driver Josh Berry finished a career-best second on Sunday, with Hendrick not missing a beat despite all its distractions. Gordon found Berry after the race on pit road to congratulate the journeyman and later told reporters the 32-year-old has a future in the Cup Series.
“It’s been a good week. It’s been really stressful trying to prep for an appeal and not knowing what the outcome is going to be,” Gordon said. "We’re certainly happy with what the appeals committee came to that conclusion, but at the same time, we feel like we laid out enough information there that it shouldn’t have ever happened, or even the monetary side of it and the crew chief side of it.
“We were really hoping we were going to get all of that back. But we’re going to move on from that. Once the green flag dropped, it’s all about those teams executing and doing their job. But certainly quite a few smiles around (Hendrick) campus this day. They’ve been down with what happened. So that definitely reenergized our folks this week and coming into this weekend’s race.”
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