Larson Returns To An Unfamiliar NASCAR

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 9 2021

Kyle Larson is returning to the Cup Series (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Kyle Larson walks into Daytona International Speedway’s garage it marks the first time the 28-year-old has been in the NASCAR environment in nearly a year, and he’s already discovered it is no longer familiar territory.

It’s been tough for him to remember what is comfortable in a Cup car; the throttle and brake geometry, the pedal distance and where the shifter feels normal. His body has become accustomed to sitting upright in a Sprint or Midget car, totally different from the posture required in a Cup car. He drove his motor coach to the 2.5-mile track the Sunday before the Daytona 500 and realized he wasn’t familiar with NASCAR’s COVID protocol. However, none of that has dampened Larson’s excitement about returning to NASCAR, to receiving a second chance.

“I never really thought I would get another chance to race in NASCAR and I kind of accepted that throughout the middle of last year,” Larson said. “I tried to shift my focus towards what’s ahead in my new life of racing a bunch, driving up and down the road and stuff like that. I was trying to figure out how that would be with my family, my kids once they start school.”

Then one day everything changed when Larson received a telephone call from team owner Rick Hendrick, a team owner who has given many people a second chance. 

“It’s pretty unbelievable and I’m very thankful,” said Larson, who will campaign Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet in Cup events this year. 

“I hope to do a good job for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and all my sponsors… just do a good job on-and-off the track to really take advantage of this second change that I may not have deserved.”  

Larson’s NASCAR career came to a screeching halt last year just four races into the season after everything shut down for the pandemic. In April, he used a racial slur during the live stream of an iRacing event. NASCAR immediately suspended him indefinitely. In issuing the behavioral penalty, NASCAR also required Larson attend sensitivity training. Team owner Chip Ganassi subsequently suspended Larson without pay, but when all of the driver’s sponsors ended their relationship with him, Ganassi fired the young competitor. Larson returned to his dirt track racing roots for the rest of the year and immediately began winning. In fact, by the end of 2020, Larson led the nation with 30 victories in 410 Sprint Cars and he collected 46 wins overall, giving him a 50 percent winning percentage. However, the California native did much more than race. He also pursued many ventures that changed him personally. He volunteered in Minneapolis, worked with the Urban Youth Racing School and conducted a fundraiser on social media during the winter. He met retired American soccer player Tony Sanneh and Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee. Larson also created a Foundation.

“He is a different person,” Hendrick said. “He’s looked at things he never looked at before, and it feels good to him that he’s making a difference. I think he can really make a difference in so many different areas, especially the Urban Racing School. He started doing things nobody asked him to do. He did what he had to do with NASCAR, but he went way over that. It was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.” 

Larson has talked with Bubba Wallace and described their relationship as “good.” He recently asked Wallace in a text which gaming console he should acquire for his bus, an Xbox or a PlayStation. Wallace, in turn, asked Larson about golf. Ironically, both drivers came through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.

The unforeseen path Larson traveled last year made him “better all around” as “a parent, a friend, a husband, a son.” In regards to parenting, Larson’s children are ages six and two and “kids treat everybody equally”, but he knows that as they grow it will be crucial for him to emphasize to them the importance of treating everyone equally. 

“I look forward to that as they get older,” Larson commented. “They’re both really young and it’s hard to really teach them about what I did and said and went through to get better. Owen just turned six. I think he’s probably got a couple more years until he can really grasp everything that went on last year. I look forward to that day of teaching them about it. Being a parent is a very rewarding thing and I think I’ll be rewarded as I see them grow up and learn from me and what I did.”

For now, however, it’s about racing and NASCAR champion Kurt Busch knows his former Chip Ganassi Racing teammate will be tough.  

The professionalism of Hendrick Motorsports has never been questioned,” Busch explained. “The guidance there and just everything that I’m seeing adding up is that once he gets the feel of the car, and once he’s in sync with his crew chief, they’re going to be a tough train to stop. I see that program as being one of the top contenders already.”

(Editor’s Note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, February 9 2021
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