By Cole Cusumano
The Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway marked a special day for Kyle Larson and Rick Hendrick. The new driver of the No. 5 won in just his fourth start with Hendrick Motorsports — the quickest anyone emerged victorious in the organization’s 37-year history. This also marked the first time since 2015 the prestigious team went back-to-back.
But among the countless achievements attained Sunday afternoon, perhaps one of the most significant details lied in the familiarly dressed Chevrolet Camaro from the winning team.
Larson sported a red, white and blue paint scheme that was almost a carbon copy of the car driven by the late Ricky Hendrick, who tragically lost his life in an airplane accident along with nine others in 2004. This undoubtedly added another element of depth to the magnitude of the dominating performance by the organization as a whole in Las Vegas.
“This win today in the 5 car with my son’s paint scheme on it was probably one of the most special races that I’ve ever watched,” Hendrick said. “It was emotional. When we (Hendrickcar.com) were going to be on the car, I mean, I wanted to run that paint scheme with that number. That meant a ton to me today and to my family just to honor our son.
“Kyle made us proud today.”
Larson went on to lead a race-high 103 laps, en route to his first victory at 1.5-mile track after placing second, nine times. This was also an emotional day for the 28-year-old, as it came almost a year after his indefinite suspension from NASCAR for using a racial slur during a Twitch livestream.
Through months of sensitivity training and taking the initiative to be a better individual, Larson admitted to getting choked up once he received the white flag. Having the privilege to compete at the sport’s highest level again with the added merit of carrying the legacy of his team owner’s son made this victory one he’ll never forget.
“I know that this is Rick’s most special paint scheme for obvious reasons and it’s just an honor for me to be able to drive it,” Larson said. “I guess I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again. To get this awesome opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports and Mr. H taking a massive chance on me, then going out there and being strong all year, it’s been great.”
Just how great has Larson been in 2021? He’s led laps in all but one race this season and he established himself as a contender for the win each week. The California native also sits third in the standings and had already locked himself into a playoff berth.
To say Larson and Hendrick Motorsports have been great this year would be an understatement. Competitors and analysts alike have even pegged the Chevrolet stable as the team to beat early on. This once dormant organization has hit its stride and is setting the prestigious standard that’s been associated with it after years of rebuilding.
It’s fair to assume Larson will be a championship favorite throughout 2021, but he’ll have some catching up to do after missing the series finale at Phoenix Raceway last November. Luckily for him, he hasn’t finished lower than fourth over his last four starts in Arizona, and Hendrick Motorsports has a reputation for fielding some of the fastest cars in the desert.
Racing with a heavy heart and the tribute of an iconic figure throughout NASCAR on his No. 5, Larson will look to back up his fourth-place finish last Spring in Phoenix with a victory in his pocket and momentum on his side, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. ET in the Instacart 500 on Fox.