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Friday 5: Rick Hendrick relishes ‘heartwarming stories’ of his son

Alan Gustafson explains why he and Chase Elliott are successful together, looks ahead to a repeat effort at Road America and answers listener questions.

Even now, more than 17 years after Ricky Hendrick died in a plane crash, his father, Rick Hendrick, says “it’s just hard to believe that it has been that long ago.

“You think about it, in a way it was like yesterday. Sometimes, I even think I’m going to see him come around the corner in his Tahoe. But, then you think, gosh, it’s been that long ago, almost 20 years.”

Ricky Hendrick was among 10 people killed in October 2004 when a team plane crashed on the way to a Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. He was 24 years old. Rick Hendrick also lost his brother and two nieces in the accident.

Ricky Hendrick’s legacy will be honored in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Road America. For the first time since 2009, Hendrick Motorsports will field a car in the Xfinity Series.

The team will use the No. 17 — the number Ricky Hendrick had when he competed in the Camping World Truck Series in 2000-01 — and a paint scheme based on his truck’s scheme. Kyle Larson will drive the car in Saturday’s Xfinity race (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Alex Bowman will run the car in the July 30 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course. William Byron will pilot the car Aug. 20 at Watkins Glen International.

“It’s been something that I think our family and our organization can still celebrate with that paint scheme, that number and what Ricky meant to us,” Rick Hendrick told NBC Sports a few days after Father’s Day. “It’s very special.

“It’s hard to even put into words, especially right here with Father’s Day. You’re thinking about not having him around, but having pieces (and) memories, you keep all of that alive.”

Ricky Hendrick 17 Truck - Kansas 2001

Ricky Hendrick on the way to winning the 2001 NASCAR Truck race at Kansas Speedway. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

And he has many stories, which provide uplifting moments for Rick Hendrick and his family.

“As time goes on, you have people tell funny stories and some of his friends, a lot of them come by, and they tell stories and we laugh,” Rick Hendrick said. “That’s the bright spot. He didn’t live all that many years, but, boy, he enjoyed himself, and he had so many friends.

“There are a lot of heartwarming stories. We talked about it (on Father’s Day) and we do all the time. I smile when somebody says, ‘You remember when Ricky did this or did that?’ ”

One special memory happened July 7, 2001, when Ricky scored his lone Truck Series win. Rick Hendrick and his wife, Linda, were at Kansas Speedway and celebrated with their son.

Ricky Hendrick - Kansas 2001

Ricky Hendrick at Kansas in 2001. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

“There’s nothing in the world that makes you any happier than to see a child, yours, achieve something that they want,” Rick Hendrick said. “I stood in the back of the press conference after the race and listened to him.

“I still had tears in my eyes because I remembered when he was in the second grade. He said racing ran though his blood like water through a stream.

“To see him sitting up there, where I’ve seen a lot of my guys sit, and watched press conferences, but to stand in the back of the room and seeing something like an inaugural Truck (win), him achieving what he did. ...

“It was just … if you’re not a parent you can’t understand, but if you are, you understand.”

And some parents know the pain Rick Hendrick has felt.

“I have this fraternity that you don’t want to be in,” he said, alluding to fathers in NASCAR who have lost a child. “(Fox Sports’) Chris Myers and Kyle Petty. Chris Myers texted me (on Father’s Day) and we texted back and forth. … In my case and my wife’s case, we think we’re going to see (Ricky) again soon. It won’t be that far off for us.

“But you always think about what could be. You think about how things would be different today, what would it be like. That’s something that we talked about (on Father’s Day), what would it be like if he was with his daughter and we were all together.

“It’s one of those things you never want to forget. You think aboutit all the time, and you think about how short his life was. Until you go through it, you don’t understand. I used to tell people how bad I felt when they lost a child. Then all of a sudden, I wanted to call every one of them back and say, ‘Look, I really didn’t understand. I said I’m sorry, but I really didn’t understand.’

“Good news is that we’ve got such a tight group, automotive family and racing family, and everybody wants to celebrate his life. When the drivers called me and said, ‘Man, I’m so excited I get to drive the 17,’ that makes me feel good.”

The weekend got off to a good start. Kyle Larson won the pole for Saturday’s Xfinity race in that race. Although

“Having children myself makes running this car much more important because I can’t imagine losing one of my children and what that would to do me,” Larson said.
To this day, Ricky Hendrick continues to make an impact on his father’s life.

“I think of my grandchildren, I want to spend more time with them,” Rick Hendrick said. “I love doing things with them. I’ve got a 15-year-old grandson that is a car nut. … My granddaughter, Ricky’s little girl, she is in the auto business. She wants to be in the business.

“I think back to him growing up and watching him start working in the stores, start going into motorsports, loving motorsports and see the grandkids doing it. I see him in them.

“I want to make sure that I spend time with them and don’t miss out on that, this stage of their life. You can’t take it for granted that they’ll be here all the time.”

2. How an appeal impacted the finish at Nashville

The end of last weekend’s Cup race at Nashville proved puzzling, as three Joe Gibbs Racing cars, running second through fourth, all pitted when leader Chase Elliott stayed out before the final restart.

Denny Hamlin was third at the time of the final caution. When Kyle Busch, who was second, pitted, Hamlin could have stayed out and restarted on the front row.

That he pitted was confusing because only the day before Hamlin told reporters: “We have changed our … strategy to just we either want to win a stage or win the race.”

The change is because Hamlin, who is 20th in points, is too far back to climb into the top 10 in the standings before the regular season ends. He won’t get any of the bonus playoff points awarded to those who finish the regular season in the top 10 in points.

The only way Hamlin can earn playoff points is by winning a stage (worth one playoff point) or a race (five playoff points).

That’s what made what happened at Nashville a head scratcher. After Hamlin pitted, 10 cars did not. Hamlin restarted 14th. He finished sixth, while Elliott won.

Crew chief Chris Gabehart told NBC Sports on Thursday that the call was for Hamlin to stay out if he could get the front row, but a miscommunication led to Hamlin pitting.

Nashville was the final race for Gabehart’s four-race suspension because a wheel came off Hamlin’s car at Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing appealed the penalty and lost. The appeals panel amended the penalty, making the suspension four points races instead of four races.

That proved to be a significant change.

Had the penalty not been altered, Gabehart would have been at Nashville. With the change to the penalty, Gabehart could not have the All-Star Race, a non-points race, count as one of the four races he had to miss. So, he missed the Coca-Cola 600, which Hamlin won, Gateway, Sonoma and Nashville.

Engineer Sam McAulay served as the crew chief with Gabehart out. A decision to pit before the first overtime restart put Hamlin in position to win the Coca-Cola 600 last month. This time, things didn’t go as smoothly.

“The bottom line is some words got jumbled (on the radio) and it ended up being if you can get the lead, stay,” Gabehart said. “Denny did exactly what he’s supposed to do. He took the directive, and he wasn’t going to be able to get the lead, so he pitted.

“The reality is what we needed and should have done was if you get the front row, stay, and it just didn’t get articulated correctly.”

That’s one of the challenges when a crew chief is suspended. He can’t be on the pit box. He must relay information to the interim crew chief and have that message passed along to the driver.

“It happens,” Gabehart told NBC Sports of the miscommunication on the radio. “It’s part of it. Many crew chiefs have done it before.

“I’ve been through a lot more of those situations, and it’s a lot less confusing than when you’re having to channel the directive through a different voice and you’re able to instead consume it and produce it. I feel our instance, honestly, will get cleaned up when all our roles get put back to where they’re supposed to be.”

Gabehart is back at Road America for Sunday’s Cup race (3 p.m. ET on USA Network).

The last time Cup competed on a road course was three weeks ago at Sonoma. No Toyota finished in the top 15, which Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson called an “embarrassment.”

Questions remain for the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing entering Road America.

“I can say we’ve put in a tremendous amount of work into it as a team and an organization over the last two weeks, knowing that road racing has been a weakness for us,” Gabehart said. “I look forward to getting to Road America and seeing if we’ve made gains.

“I think realistically, it’s a lot to ask to expect a Toyota to run the way it has at Sonoma and even kind of like at COTA and make a huge leap to be a winning race car at Road America. I think that would be a lot.

“I think more realistically, if we can be a top five or fringe top-five, top-10 car or organization, then I will deem Road America a success ... and try to get better going to Indy.”

3. Ross Chastain’s quest for more

Trackhouse Racing enters Road America as the early favorite after Ross Chastain won at Circuit of the Americas and teammate Daniel Suarez won at Sonoma in the only two road course races this year.

Chastain noted how the victory at Circuit of the Americas changed him, particularly when the series raced at Sonoma last month.

I got out after practice, and I think we were like fourth or fifth quick,” Chastain said. “I was complaining how the car wouldn’t turn. It wouldn’t drive off the corner. It wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t do anything good, and we were terrible.

“I was on the radio complaining about a lot. My car chief looked at me when I got out of the car (and said) ‘Now you complain when we’re top five in practice? Two months ago you were just happy to be here in the field and now we’re (saying) it’s the end of the world when we’re fifth quick.’ It hit me, OK, I’m never going to be satisfied.”

Chastain heads into Sunday’s race second in the standings. He trails Chase Elliott by 30 points with nine races left in the regular season. Elliott, Chastain and William Byron each has a series-high 13 playoff points.

In a season of inconsistency for many teams as they learn the Next Gen car, Trackhouse has been one of the few teams that has been fast at many tracks. Chastain has two wins and a series-high eight top-five finishes in 17 starts.

“This isn’t just a moment,” Chastain said, “but this an arrival of Trackhouse.”

4. Fun learning the new car

While the new car has challenged many teams and drivers, Kaulig Racing’s AJ Allmendinger says he’s enjoyed the new car.

The Xfinity points leader will again run the Cup race this weekend for Kaulig. He nearly won at Circuit of the Americas before contact from Ross Chastain knocked him out of the lead on the last lap.

This will be Allmendinger’s ninth Cup start this season, as he shares the No. 16 car with Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric this season.

Allmendinger said the new car has given teams like Kaulig a better chance of competing.

“Let’s be completely honest here – like in the past, especially with the old car when we were with the No. 47 car, we knew that with these types of races we could go run well,” Allmendinger said of road course racing with JTG Daugherty Racing.

“But you knew half of the time at a 1.5-mile race track - no matter what you did, you could be perfect that weekend and you’d probably run 20th just because those cars had been massaged so much, aero-wise. And the big teams knew so many tricks of what they could get through tech. … So it was tough sometimes going to those race weekends and going ‘I hope at best we can run 18th.’

“With this Next Gen car now, your eyes are kind of wide open. Yeah there are some weekends that I’ve gotten in the car and you’re just terrible all weekend and it’s a struggle. But also, when we went to St. Louis – I had no practice, had never seen the place before. We got the car dialed in mid-race and we drove up through the field. I actually thought we had a top-five car by the end of the race. Even last week, we got the car right and we were getting to the edge of the top 10.

“That makes it fun because you know if you hit the setup right – the two road courses are the perfect example of that. COTA, I started at the back and we were a top-two car all day, between me and Ross (Chastain). Sonoma, I was at best 11th or 12th. So it does make it fun because you know if your team executes and you get the setup right, you can go have a shot to win races or run upfront.”

5. Confidence growing

Michael McDowell finished third at Sonoma in the most recent road course race, and the Front Row Motorsports driver is looking for a better result this weekend at Road America. McDowell heads into Sunday’s race having already scored a career-high six top-10 finishes this season.

“Sonoma, I felt like finally I had an opportunity to do what I always believed that I could do at a road course and just have a good day – qualify in the top five, race in the top five, be there throughout the entirety of the race,” he said.

“So that one was an important momentum shift for us because I’ve always felt good on the road courses. That’s my background, but I’ve never felt like we’ve been actual contenders and at Sonoma we were actual contenders.

“Taking that and moving to Road America, we should be contenders there. There’s no reason why we won’t. COTA, we missed the setup and weren’t great and we ran 13th there. Sonoma, we hit it and were pretty good. Sonoma should help us build toward Road America.”