Larson’s Journey May End On Phoenix Podium

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 17 2021

Kyle Larson’s bumpy road has smoothed out big time in 2021. (File photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas – Whether or not he wins the NASCAR Cup Series driver’s title, Kyle Larson is in the midst of completing a circuitous, 18-month journey from castoff to championship contender.

A better driver? A better person? Larson says he has become both in his brief tenure with Hendrick Motorsports, where team-owner Rick Hendrick has handed the 29-year-old Californian the opportunity to redeem a reputation sullied by a racial slur during a 2021 season that easily has exceeded expectations.

“I’m not really sure how to answer that, because I didn’t really set any expectations,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s Round of 8 Playoffs race at Texas Motor Speedway atop the point standings. “I never liked setting expectations because…I just never want to be satisfied if I’ve met my expectations.”

Larson will start the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 on-pole and on the strength of a series-leading seven victories, including a Round of 12 win on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval last weekend. Larson leads the standings by 35 points over title rival Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Larson also is a comfortable 42 points above the cutoff for the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 7.

Larson and Hamlin are among eight drivers who will settle the championship lineup over a three-race stretch including TMS’ 1.5-mile oval, Kansas Speedway’s 1.5-mile layout on Oct. 24 and Martinsville Speedway’s historic half-mile short-track on Oct. 31. 

Larson has made 13 series starts at TMS, with three top-five and four top-10 results. His average finish at “The Great American Speedway” is 19.7. Recall that Larson also won the first NASCAR All-Star Race hosted by TMS on June 13, a non-point event that paid $1-million-to-win.

A year ago, Larson was exiled from NASCAR after uttering a racial slur during an iRacing event in April. That incident cost Larson _ ironically, a graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative _ his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing. NASCAR suspended Larson indefinitely and required that he undergo sensitivity training. After monitoring Larson’s on and off-track behavior for months, Hendrick signed him to a multi-year contract on Oct. 28, 2020 to drive the company’s No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE beginning in 2021.

“I was around Kyle a lot when he was driving with Ganassi,” Hendrick said. “We were kind of friends. I talked to him. But just the determination he has right now. He’s so good. I did not realize how good he was with feedback to the car. Now the further into the year he and (crew chief) Cliff Daniels go, the better they’ve gotten together.”

Larson, who posted six of his 13 Cup victories to-date driving Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevy, has immediately repaid the trust of “Mr. H.”

“You know, I had a good feeling we’d be strong this year just because Chase Elliott won the championship last year,” Larson said. “And the rules were not changing heading into this season, so I knew we’d be fast. I felt like we’d be good but it turned out way better than we thought it would.”

Larson returned to his racing roots in the summer of 2020, barnstorming the nation’s dirt tracks during a frenetic 96-race tour.

“I’ve always raced a lot. But racing fulltime dirt-track last year, I had a great season,” Larson said. “I won 46 races and I think I finished second like another almost 20-something times. So I was in position to win a ton of races last year. I think putting myself in those moments really helped me more mentally than anything _ being able to handle pressure a little bit better, know what to do in certain situations, just gain a lot of experience racing for wins, I think, has made me a better driver.

“I don’t think I go any faster because I raced more last year. I just think that the mental and the strategy side of racing, I’m a little bit better than I was maybe before.”

Away from the racetrack, Larson took responsibility for his words. He penned an open letter on his website in October 2020 apologizing for his actions, hired an inclusion coach, participated in a variety of classes and took visits to learn more about the Black community.

He also launched the Kyle Larson Foundation, which is dedicated to bringing people together and providing support to hands-on charitable organizations that benefit today’s youth, families and communities in-need.

“I think for sure that’s made me a better person and gave me a better perspective on a lot of things,” Larson said. “Our foundation is something I’ve always wanted to do; I just didn’t know what I wanted it to be focused on. So, I’m working together with a lot of the people who helped me last year, the Urban Youth Racing School and the Sanneh Foundation. I think we’ve raised almost a couple hundred thousand dollars to this point to benefit those kids and their communities.

“It’s been nice to learn about the charitable side of things. I’ve been a part of events and stuff but never really saw the inner-workings.  I look forward to growing it and making it have a bigger effect.”

Hendrick clearly views Larson as heir to the HMS Cup legacy that includes seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon, two-time champ “Texas” Terry Labonte and young Mr. Elliott. 

“Kyle right now, this year, he has tremendous confidence in the team,” Hendrick said. “They have tremendous confidence in him. He believes, I mean, he’s the guy.”

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was the inaugural recipient of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Media Award (2010). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 17 2021
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