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Larson Cashes In On His Second Chance

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 8 2021

Kyle Larson salutes the fans at Phoenix Raceway after winning the 2021 Cup championship. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Eighteen months ago Kyle Larson didn’t know if he would ever race again in NASCAR, but the 29-year-old driver received a second chance, one on which he capitalized, transforming it into a Cup Series championship.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup season showcased Larson’s talent like never before. With his first Phoenix Raceway victory Sunday, he became the first driver to win 10 races in a single season since seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat in 2007. He tied three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, his racing hero, for the most victories in the playoffs with five and earlier in the year he claimed the series regular season title. In Sunday’s Cup season finale, Larson broke Jeff Gordon’s record of laps led in a single season since 2001 when NASCAR went to a 36-race schedule. Gordon led 2,320 laps en route to his fourth Cup championship, while Larson set the pace for 2,581 laps this year.

“He’s done everything he could to get back into the sport and be something we’re all proud of and he’s proud of,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He’s got a big heart and he’s done a lot of things that nobody knows about. He doesn’t try to get publicity. He’s just a good human being and he’s got a tremendous amount of talent. I knew he had talent, but I didn’t know his soul. He has really impressed me with the individual that he is.” 

 In the emotional department, Larson is normally even keel. He even noted after his September Bristol race victory that “I’m 5-feet-6-inchs, 135 pounds. I’m not going to get too wound up about anything.” However, emotions overwhelmed Larson on Sunday about an hour before the race. That’s when that day’s magnitude hit him and he became teary-eyed. 

“The crowd was jam-packed and really loud for me,” Larson said. “The pressure of this race, everything else on the line to win this championship, every one of these fans made me feel it. I was telling myself to chill out, to stop tearing up. It was a different atmosphere than I’ve ever been a part of.” 

Last year, Larson won about 50 percent of the dirt races in which he competed and this season he emerged victorious in a marquee event in each of the cars in which he raced. Driving a Midget, he won the Chili Bowl and the BC39, he captured the Kings Royal and Knoxville Nationals in a Sprint Car, and the Prairie Dirt Classic in a dirt Late Model. In the Cup Series, he won the All-Star race and his 10 victories included the Coca-Cola 600. By the time 2021 ends, Larson figures he will have competed in approximately 100 races.  

A low-key person, Larson never appears rattled by anything. He knows how to race and when to race. However, maturity came at a high price. In the spring of 2020, he used a racial slur during the live stream of an iRacing event. NASCAR immediately suspended him indefinitely and required him to 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 Larson. It was a life-changing experience.

“Life is a crazy thing and you’ve just got to stay positive through it all, and everything will hopefully work out for you,” Larson said.

“Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship. It’s definitely been a journey, a roller-coaster, but I’m very thankful for my second chance and every opportunity I’ve been given in these last 18 months. I’m just the luckiest human being on this planet!” 

A decade ago, Larson met with numerous NASCAR team owners, but Ganassi was the only one to even consider hiring the young competitor. The fourth California native to win a Cup championship said he was “very thankful” for the years he spent with Ganassi, but admitted it was a “little bit bittersweet” to win Ganassi’s last event as a NASCAR team owner. 

Even though Ganassi opened the NASCAR door for Larson, the dirt superstar never viewed a Cup championship as attainable until he joined Hendrick Motorsports, which owns 14 driver/owner Cup championships. At Hendrick Motorsports Larson found that special chemistry needed for success. After Sunday’s race, he readily admitted the championship wouldn’t be a reality if his crew hadn’t executed its second-fastest pit stop of the season 28 laps from the race’s conclusion. 

However, that chemistry between Larson and his team began long before the 2021 season. Once crew chief Cliff Daniels learned Larson would be his driver he traveled to various dirt races to become familiar with how Larson communicated with his crew chiefs. Even today, Daniels calls Kevin Rumley to discuss Larson’s dirt Late Model or converse with Paul Silva about his driver’s Sprint Car. 

“He grew up dirt racing out West. I grew up pavement racing on the East coast,” Daniels explains. “You literally could not get farther apart on the spectrum of racing. The connection that we had was our passion for racing.”

Larson had to convince Hendrick that dirt racing would be helpful, not detrimental to his Cup effort. When the No. 5 team was on the verge of winning on five consecutive Cup weekends, Larson was racing dirt two or three nights a week.

 “(I’m) just very fortunate to have all the opportunities I’ve ever been given, and it’s hard to think about what else I would like to accomplish, but I love winning races and I love driving all sorts of vehicles,” Larson said.

Larson will be honored Dec. 2 at the Music City Center in downtown Nashville, Tenn., during NASCAR Champion’s Week. 

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, November 8 2021
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