KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Kyle Larson has only heard stories about the late Ricky Hendrick, the son of his team owner who was killed 17 years ago in a plane crash on the way to a NASCAR race.
The anniversary is a difficult day for Rick and Linda Hendrick, neither of whom made the trip Sunday to the playoff race at Kansas Speedway. Rick Hendrick instead texted Larson before the race and told his driver what a win would mean to the Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Larson delivered with his ninth win of the season, but most meaningful victory to date in his new job with Hendrick Motorsports.
Larson crossed the finish line and as part of his celebration stood on the window ledge of the No. 5 Chevrolet and pointed to the sky for Ricky Hendrick and the nine others killed in the 2004 crash of a team plane en route to a race in Virginia.
“To lose your child and so many other people that day, I can’t imagine what the feeling may have been for everybody at that time,” Larson said. “So to come here 17 years to the day and win in this paint scheme, with this number, it’s just pretty surreal. I’ve heard lots of good stories about Ricky and I wish I could have met him.”
Ricky Hendrick used the No. 5 during his driving career and the 24-year-old was the heir apparent of NASCAR's winningest team at the time of his death. Larson's car is stylized to resemble Ricky Hendrick's scheme, and hours before Sunday's race, team owner Hendrick texted Larson to stress what a win would mean to him on this date.
When Rick Hendrick texted Larson earlier Sunday, he told his new driver that all four of the Hendrick crews would turn their hats backwards on the fifth lap in honor of how Ricky Hendrick wore his caps. He urged Larson to be the leader on the fifth lap and Larson was determined to deliver.
“I didn’t ever get to meet Ricky or the other men and women who lost their lives that day,” Larson said. “But I felt the importance of this race. So crazy how it all worked out for me to win. So again, thank you to Rick Hendrick, I know this means a lot to you and I’m glad I could get it done.”
The victory was Larson's third consecutive and fourth over the last six playoff races. Larson has won three straight races twice this season and is the first driver to do that since the late Dale Earnhardt in 1987.
Larson is locked into the Nov. 7 championship finale, and the remaining three spots in the winner-take-all title race will be settled next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia — where the Hendrick flight was headed on that 2004 race morning.
Larson beat reigning Cup champion and Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott by 3.619-seconds for the win, but Elliott focused on the importance of the day for the organization over his defeat.
“This is a day that nobody is ever going to forget. Just thinking about Mr. Hendrick and all the families that were affected 17 years ago today,” Elliott said. "Just proud to be a part of their family and hope we can make them proud these next two weeks.”
Elliott last year swept Martinsville and then the finale at Phoenix to win his first Cup title. He'll go to Martinsville seeking the win.
“I am not sure that any amount of points is safe," Elliott said. “I think anyone in this round can win next week. So we are really going to have to be on it, but looking forward to the opportunity and excited for the challenge.”
The Hendrick cars have been far and above the strongest on tracks in which NASCAR uses its 550 horsepower package, but Kansas marked the final race of the season with those rules.
But in finishing second, Elliott moved above the cutline and is second in the standings headed to Martinsville. Denny Hamlin is third and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch fourth, a single point above the elimination line.
Kevin Harvick finished third in a Ford and there was no chance of another incident with Elliott because NASCAR two weeks ago demanded the two end their feud.
Kurt Busch was fourth and followed by Hamlin, the highest-finishing Toyota driver.
It was a terrible day for Team Penske despite Joey Logano's ninth-place finish. Brad Keselowski finished 17th and Ryan Blaney was wrecked on a late restart and finished 37th.
All three Fords from the Penske camp go to Martinsville below the playoff elimination cutline. Martin Truex Jr. is also below the cutline. Blaney is one point below Kyle Busch, while Truex is three points behind his JGR teammate.
“Obviously, it hurts. Finishing 37th is not prime,” Keselowski said. "We didn’t have a great day but we did a good job of fighting back and getting back into the top-10 but then just got wiped out when we had plenty of room. That sucks. It is very unfortunate.”
Keselowski is six points below the cutline and Logano is 26 and ranked last. A win by any of the drivers is worth an automatic berth into the championship field.
UP NEXT: The penultimate race of the season, at Martinsville Speedway, where the final three spots in the championship finale will be decided. Elliott is the defending race winner; Truex won at Martinsville in the spring.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports