Kyle Larson: Will A Second Chance Bring Success?
By Brennen McCall, Guest Contributor
It’s April 12, 2020. The country is beginning to cope with the idea that we might not see sports return for a long time. Stands were empty. Courts were bare. Fields of grass and turf were no longer illuminated with primetime lights. Racetracks too were robbed of the roar of screaming engines and the smell of burnt rubber. As other stick and ball sports were left with no options to adapt to this foreign way of life, the world of auto racing took to the virtual streets to provide some form of entertainment to give race fans their fix for competition.
To some iRacing is just a video game. To others it’s a legit form of competition. To NASCAR it was an opportunity it needed to pounce on. iRacing is a computer racing simulator designed to mimic the cars and tracks we see in real life with surprising accuracy. This accuracy gave fans a product that was similar enough to the real thing to fill their pallet. Drivers from all forms of racing got their hands on expensive PCs and sim rigs with force feedback wheels. NASCAR held sanctioned races and even got their broadcast partners involved to put them on national television. Other events were held just out of fun. Twitch was a common way for fans to tune in and cheer on their favorite driver. Kyle Larson often took part in these events.
One of these events saw a stain on Larson’s career and reputation in the form of a racial slur. To put it bluntly, he said the N-word. This particular event was holding 80+ drivers with a large portion of them hosting their own streams. Thousands of people were tuning in and everyone heard Larson call someone the N-word. He thought he was speaking to a small group of drivers in the race, but he had made the mistake of talking to all drivers. The clip was on social media within minutes and it spread like wildfire. The damage had been done. Larson was now at the mercy of NASCAR, his team, his sponsors and fans alike.
The following morning he gave an apology video. The following days he saw the repercussions of his actions. NASCAR suspended him. One by one his sponsors dropped him. His owner, Chip Ganassi, was left with no choice but to fire his star driver. He wasn’t about to field a car without sponsorship dollars coming in. Larson had to make some very difficult decisions…and quick. If you’re a world-class racecar driver who’s looking to find a job in NASCAR’s premiere series next year, what do you do? You race.
Motorsports in the U.S. resumed some weeks later and Larson returned to his roots to try and rebuild his reputation and career. He owned a dirt sprint car and often participated in multiple dirt events a year when he didn’t have NASCAR duties. Now he’s got to race whenever and wherever he can to have an income and to keep himself in the conversation for a ride in NASCAR. Luckily for him, he’s considered to be one of the best dirt racing drivers in world and he would prove it with the numbers he put up. Larson managed to win 46 times in 2020 across multiple series with a winning percentage of at least .500. It is simply one of the greatest seasons in dirt racing history and just might be the greatest in the modern era.
While parking it in victory lane half the time proves to car owners you have what it takes, it doesn’t wipe away the stain of saying a racial slur. It doesn’t prove that you’ve changed to the public and to potential sponsors. When late October rolled around Larson didn’t have a seat lined up and questions were looming if he would even have a ride in NASCAR in 2021. 2020 was a contract year and before his incident many were nabbing Larson as Jimmie Johnson’s replacement who was set to retire at the end of the season. While Johnson had not won a race since 2017, the cars he drove were competitive. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott would go on to win the Cup Series Championship that year. The cars were fast, but if an owner intends to keep their cars fast, they need sponsorship dollars to come in. Sponsors made it clear they did not want to be associated with Kyle Larson. So where was he to go? What owner would take a financial hit just to put him in their car? That answer came with NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick.
Rick Hendrick started Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) in 1984 and has since built the team up to rank second among NASCAR’s all-time winningest teams with the help of drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Terry Lebonte. But it wasn’t star power that propelled HMS to the top. Rick Hendrick was a businessman. He’s managed to bring major sponsors to the table to invest in his team and his drivers to much success. But when he made the decision to add Kyle Larson to his field of young drivers for 2021, the question everyone was asking was what logos would be on the car? Currently it looks as though Rick Hendrick is paying out of pocket to put Larson in the car. His lineup of new & used car dealerships, Hendrickcars.com, will be on Larson’s #5 Chevy for the foreseeable future. It may be a while before a company touches Larson and that could rest on how well he performs in 2021.
So now we get the good stuff. Kyle Larson gets suspended by NASCAR and fired from his ride only to get reinstated and awarded a seat for the organization that just won a championship at NASCAR’s highest level. Will this second chance prove fruitful for him in 2021? I believe all signs say yes. Larson will be in top of the line equipment. HMS proved last season that they can go toe to toe with Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin and beat them. Rick Hendrick wants Larson to win. That’s why he hired him. He believes in Larson’s talent so much that he’s willing to throw his own money on the car in hopes that this decision brings more trophies back to the shop. Larson will have the best of the best behind him and a schedule that I believe suits him.
Here is my prediction. Kyle Larson will find victory lane in 2021 and I think it will come at Bristol. For the first time since 1970 the NASCAR Cup Series will host a race on dirt. Bristol is a paved track just like every other venue on the circuit, but NASCAR decided to spice things up this year with the schedule and cover the world’s fastest half-mile in dirt just because they can. And it’s going to be awesome. Given Larson’s unbelievable run on dirt tracks around the country last year, I’m convinced he will make his comeback victory at this season’s Bristol Dirt race.
His story will be one of many in 2021, but it certainly is the biggest storyline heading into one of the most anticipated NASCAR seasons in recent memory. Kyle Larson’s second chance has all the potential to bring him success.