In recent years, Charlotte Motor Speedway's Coca-Cola 600 has survived through its rich history as a crown jewel event rather than enriching the sport through on-track competition. On Sunday night, Hendrick Motorsports produced another dominant performance symptomatic of why the track has lost the All-Star Race and turned its second oval date into an infield road course: Kyle Larson completed a 10-second victory and led 327 of the 400 laps.
That victory for Hendrick made a little history all its own. With 269 career victories, Hendrick stands alone as the all-time winningest car owner in NASCAR, passing Petty Enterprises and another legend of stock car racing.
"Richard Petty is the king of NASCAR," Rick Hendrick said. "He's done so much for this sport. Man, this is so awesome. All I can think about was the first win and all the drivers. I want to thank every driver that's ever driven [for me], that won a race; and the ones who didn't win."
It wasn't always coming up roses for NASCAR's stick-and-ball equivalent of the New York Yankees. In 1984, HMS was on the verge of shutting its doors in year one before flagship driver Geoffrey Bodine won an April race at Martinsville Speedway. A whopping 37 years later, the car owner broke the record with that same No. 5 and Larson at the helm.
"I was there with no sponsor," Hendrick said of the early days. "I think we started with five people, and Harry [Hyde, first crew chief] was making $500 a week."
An early move to grab three-time champion Darrell Waltrip didn't end in a title, and Hendrick's vision of multi-car teams caused dysfunction early on. It took until 1993 and a young rookie named Jeff Gordon for the organization to truly take off.
But boy, when it clicked for Hendrick, he soared. Gordon combined with Terry Labonte to kick off a run of four straight championships from 1995-98. Gordon's 13 wins from '98 tied a modern-era record and his 93 victories overall are the most of any driver in the same timeframe (1972-present).
Since then, Hendrick's been rocketing to more records, including five straight titles by former driver Jimmie Johnson in the playoff era (and seven overall). Their 13 championships were previously unheard of, along with 37 years with at least one win at the Cup level.
How Hendrick got to 269 is a true testament to how this team keeps raising the bar as of late:
- Three straight victories to get over the hump
- Dover International Speedway produced the first 1-2-3-4 finish in Hendrick history
- Circuit of the Americas saw reigning champion Chase Elliott outlast the rain
Hiring Larson came with its share of controversy, and like any top-tier program, there were pitfalls and tragedy along the way. Hendrick had leukemia in the late 1990s, then was convicted of mail fraud that left him spending 1998 under house arrest. He lost four relatives, including beloved son and company heir Ricky Hendrick, in a plane crash that killed 10 heading to Martinsville Speedway in 2004.
Each time, Hendrick got up off the mat and fought back to greatness, working through the challenges and often thinking two steps ahead. Indeed, a team that always adapts and evolves has the best 20-something roster of drivers in the sport right now: Larson, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Chase Elliott.
They're the team NASCAR fans either love or love to hate, igniting passion in the stands that's key to the sport's continued success.
"My dad always told me your biggest asset are your folks," Hendrick said. "You put key people together with good communication and good things will happen."
Green: Kyle Larson -- Hendrick compared Larson's driving style to Tim Richmond, the driver "Days of Thunder" was based on. That's good company, as Larson earned his first Coca-Cola 600 victory in an event he had never even led throughout his career before Sunday night. Just 76 points back of leader Denny Hamlin in the standings, the regular season title suddenly seems within reach.
Yellow: Kyle Busch. The two-time NASCAR champion was third on Sunday and the only driver in position to challenge Hendrick Motorsports. But at one point, he joked with FOX that the only way to win was to "wreck 'em" and he couldn't hold the lead on the final restart, making clear on the radio Joe Gibbs Racing is a step behind in speed right now to HMS.
"If Kyle Larson was a 10 tonight," Busch said afterward, "We're about a seven, so we've got some work to do."
Red: Matt DiBenedetto. It's a terrible time for Matty D to start whiffing. As rumors intensify Brad Keselowski is leaving Team Penske next season, potentially benefitting him, four runs outside the top 10 have his potential playoff bid on life support. He's now 55 points below the cutline with 11 races remaining and both drivers above him -- Tyler Reddick and Chris Buescher -- are red hot.
Speeding Ticket: Martin Truex Jr. Three wins should have Truex sitting pretty. So why are three runs outside the top 15 making me nervous? Charlotte is a place Truex once trounced the field to the tune of a record 392 laps led in the Coca-Cola 600. The championship favorite shouldn't have run 15th here all night, then endure an embarrassing moment where the pit crew literally couldn't pull a flat left-front tire off the car. Nine laps down in 29th is not where title contenders should be.
Oops! (And Oooo)
We'll turn our attention to that other race on Memorial Day Weekend, the Indy 500, where Graham Rahal's team didn't tighten the left rear wheel on his pit stop. Racing with three tires means disaster is going to ensue, and a crash nearly turned much worse when Conor Daly came around and kicked that rogue tire like a football.
And if you haven't seen the Indy 500 finish? Take a look, the best in years as Helio Castroneves snuck past Alex Palou in the final two laps to take the victory.
Tying the record with four Indy 500 wins at age 46, see Spider-Man's antics again in just two weeks as he turns attention toward the new SRX Racing Series on CBS.