KANSAS CITY, Kan. — 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 Cup Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway. Team owner Rick Hendrick instead texted Larson before the race and told the 29-year-old driver what a win would mean to the Hendrick Motorsports organization.
Larson delivered with his ninth points win of the season and third in a row, and it was clearly the most meaningful victory yet in his first year driving for Hendrick.
He 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 headed to a race in Virginia.
Ricky 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's scheme.
"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."
The team owner's text to Larson also said that all four of the Hendrick crews would turn their hats backward on the fifth lap in honor of how Ricky wore his caps. He urged Larson to be the leader on that 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 fourth in the past six races. Larson won three straight races for the second time this season and is the first driver to do that since the late Dale Earnhardt in 1987.
Larson is locked into one of the four championship contenders' spots in the Nov. 7 season finale at Phoenix Raceway, and the remaining three spots will be settled next Sunday at Martinsville Speedway — where the Hendrick flight was headed on that 2004 race morning.
Larson beat reigning Cup Series 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."
Last year, Elliott won at Martinsville and then at Phoenix to secure his first title on NASCAR's top circuit. 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 away the strongest on tracks in which NASCAR uses its 550 horsepower package, but 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway hosted 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. Joe Gibbs Racing's Denny Hamlin is third, with teammate Kyle Busch fourth, a single point above the elimination line.
Stewart-Haas Racing's 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.
Chip Ganassi Racing's 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 was 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. Toyota driver Martin Truex Jr. is also below the cutline. Blaney is one point below Kyle Busch, while Truex — who won at Martinsville in the spring — is three points behind his JGR teammate.
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.