Larson’s career turnaround leads to NASCAR Cup Series Championship

Why not celebrate with champagne? Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, and crew celebrated in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway Sunday. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The venerated writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once proclaimed there are no second acts in life.

Try telling that to Kyle Larson.

The 29-year-old from Elk Grove, California, is making his second act one of the most memorable in American racing history.

On Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, Larson capped off one of the most accomplished NASCAR Cup Series seasons in recent memory, outrunning his three title competitors in a sprint to win the NASCAR Cup Series Championship race and capture his first Cup Series season title.

Only a year ago Larson was contemplating his future in racing.

During a time of heightened sensitivity in sports, and particularly NASCAR – which has banned the Confederate battle flag at all of its events – he said the N-word during a live-streamed iRacing event, prompting Chip Ganassi Racing to fire him and NASCAR to suspend him.

Larson was reinstated in January after six months after he took what a NASCAR statement described as “several voluntary measures to better educate himself so that he can use his platform to help bridge the divide in our country.”

Sunday’s performance was the culmination of Larson’s comeback.

“Just thinking about the journey and how tough of a road it’s been to get to this point for so long, but especially the last year and a half, too,” Larson said. “I think just the atmosphere, I haven’t felt an atmosphere like this maybe ever. With the pressure of this race and everything that was on the line, to win this championship – every one of these fans made me feel it. I was trying to tell myself to just chill out, stop tearing up.”

Larson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliot, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. all entered the race with a shot at the title. Larson started the race in the pole position, but was quickly passed by Elliot for the lead in the second lap. After an early caution flag, and despite running in second, Cliff Daniels, the crew chief for the No. 5 team, elected to bring Larson down pit road and surrender track position.

“Everybody probably thought I was crazy at the time,” Daniels said. “Heck, I thought I was almost crazy at the time. But I knew from looking at the lap times from lap one to lap five that the field had already fallen off one to two 10ths (of a second). So yes, we were alone as being the only car to take tires, but I knew because we had studied it all week long that was a situation to go ahead and take the tires.”

As Elliot, Truex Jr. and Hamlin restarted up front, Larson was mired in 31st place. But another quick yellow turned the tables. This time, the leaders came to pit road and Larson stayed out to restart as the race leader once again.

From then on, the championship contenders never lost sight of one another, and swapped the lead throughout the afternoon. As the sun set over the western grandstands and the lights came on, Larson found himself running fourth, last among the title contenders.

Then, on Lap 283, the caution flag flew again, bringing up what would prove to be the final pit stop sequence of the season.

On Friday, Larson had qualified first, allowing his team the first selection of pit stalls. On Sunday, that advantage paid off. Larson’s crew delivered the pit stop of the year, a full second better than pit entry leader Truex Jr., and Larson lurched the short distance across the timing line at the pit exit just ahead of Hamlin and Elliot to come out of the pits first and in the lead again.

“It was a total team effort, not just from the whole season but from the whole weekend,” said Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman. “They had great stops all day long, and then an unfortunate caution that got them behind, and then another one that helped them get another opportunity. I heard that was the second-best stop of the entire year, and that’s what championship teams do.”

From there, Larson held off his challengers on the restart, and hit his marks coming home to outlast a late charge from Truex Jr.

It was Larson’s 10th win of his dominating season, placing him in the conversation about the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Not since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 has a driver scored double digit victories. Not since Gordon in 2001 has a driver led more than 2,300 laps. Not since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1987 has a driver won three consecutive races twice in one season.

Larson matched Johnson, matched Earnhardt, and surpassed Gordon.

Flipping the calendar back to November of 2020 underscores just what an incredible turnaround Larson made in 2021. At that time, Larson was just hoping to drive for a Cup Series team again, never mind the idea of winning a championship.

As Elliot celebrated his first Cup Series title at Phoenix Raceway in 2020, Larson was watching on television in North Carolina, banished.

In the midst of the pandemic, motorsports shifted into the two-dimensional world of iRacing, an extensively coded simulation that places drivers in a virtual race car interior across multiple forms of motorsport.

In the downtime during the week, a handful of drivers, many of whom have grown up racing alongside each other, would satiate their desire for racing and social connection by jumping on private lobby iRacing events. Some races were streamed so motorsports fans could get their fix, too.

It was in April 2020, while in one of those lobbies that Larson nearly put an end to his career.

The game lobby had its own forum of open communication between the iRacers and beneath that was a sub-channel where the drivers could communicate with their spotters, who watch the car on a separate viewing screen and provide alerts to their driver about the whereabouts of other competitors nearby.

Larson opened his mic to contact his spotter and sneeringly uttered the N-word in the public game chat.

“Kyle, you’re talking to everyone, bud,” said NASCAR driver Anthony Alfredo.

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“Yep, we heard that,” stated iRacer Aron MacEachern.

“Yikes,” was all Indycar driver Conor Daly could offer.

The next morning, Larson was engulfed in a firestorm.

NASCAR suspended him indefinitely. Larson’s sponsors, including McDonald’s, Credit One Bank and Chevrolet, all dumped him. Chip Ganassi, Larson’s team owner, was left with no choice but to release Larson.

Throughout the summer, Larson tried to pick up the pieces of his career by returning to the grassroots dirt racing that had molded him into a car-control wizard. He was nothing short of dominant.

For years, many wondered if Larson just used his NASCAR job as a funnel to support his true passion of sprint car racing. Even after he broke into the Cup Series and began to win races, Larson never truly saw himself as a Cup Series Champion.

“I’ve always thought about winning races, not championships,” Larson said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever win a Cup Series Championship. So, I can’t say it was ever a dream of mine. Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s just so far out there that I never thought that I would do it. Until I got with this team.”

On dirt, Larson wasn’t just winning, he was nearly unbeatable. By the end of the year, he had racked up 42 victories in sprint cars and was named the 410 Sprint Car Driver of the Year.

“I do think there’s a level of maturity there that he has now as a champion driver,” Daniels said. “As a race winning driver, whether it’s on dirt or on the pavement, when you hear the way he gets out of the car after winning a race and critiques himself, that really separates the men from the boys.”

His success caught the attention of both Hendrick and Gordon. Even before his retirement from driving, Gordon has been known to possess an eye for talent. In the early 2000s, he convinced Hendrick to take a chance on a journeyman driver in a lower series.

That driver was Jimmie Johnson, who would become a seven-time series champion.

Gordon had seen enough to know that Hendrick Motorsports would regret the day they didn’t sign Larson. He just had to make sure Mr. H – as Hendrick is known to his employees – knew it, too.

Hendrick was very aware of Larson’s talent, but had reservations about Larson as a representative of his company. Over time, Hendrick began to discover that Larson was not just completing his sensitivity training, he was embracing it.

“The more I was around Kyle, the more I appreciated the kind of person he was,” Hendrick said. “Last week or the week before, he visited three food banks and gave out a ton of money. I got to know the person. I knew the racer, I didn’t know the person. He’s got a big heart, and he’s done a lot of things that nobody in here knows about. He doesn’t try to get publicity. He’s just a good human being.”

Whenever Larson was not stomping anyone in his path on dirt, he was committed to rebuilding the bridges he had burned with his actions. He visited Minnesota weeks after George Floyd’s death. He attended African-American youth groups. He invited uncomfortable conversations with African-American drivers Bubba Wallace and Willy T. Ribbs.

Watching closely along with Hendrick was Chevrolet, which was still monitoring the driver despite publicly cutting ties with him. In their eyes, Larson was making important strides.

“Clearly, Kyle did a lot of work off the track when he was out of the sport,” said Jim Campbell, the U.S. vice president of performance motorsports for Chevrolet. “Starting in 2017 with our association through Urban Youth Racing School, we took Kyle to the school to interface with some of the students, and he kept that association up even past the formal introduction, from our standpoint.

“When we reviewed all the work he did off the track, we decided that it was worth supporting Rick’s (Hendrick) request to sign him on to the team.”

On October 19, 2020, NASCAR announced that it would reinstate Larson effective January 1, 2021. Eight days later, Hendrick announced he was signing Larson to a multi-year deal. Even more remarkable, Hendrick stated he would self-fund the team due to a significant lack of sponsorship interest.

Hendrick’s belief in Larson paid off big. Larson won his fourth race of the season at Las Vegas and was rarely threatened after that as the new king of the Cup Series. On Sunday, he received his crown.

More than a year after racing fans saw the worst of Larson, the post race scene at Phoenix Raceway highlighted the best of the controversial driver.

On the frontstretch in front of a sellout crowd, Larson embraced every member of his team, and thanked the fans before a stirring cheer erupted from the grandstands. He brought 6-year-old son Owen into the No. 5 car and drove him into victory lane.

On the championship stage, a smiling Larson embraced his wife and his daughter, and posed for photos with just about anyone who wanted one. The sponsors that wanted nothing to do with him a year ago lined up to the left of the stage for their moment with Larson.

Tony Stewart, Larson’s hero growing up, tweeted a message of congratulations.

“Congratulations to the best race car driver I have ever seen,” Stewart said.

Backed by the Hendrick Motorsports team, Larson’s improbable career U-turn might just be the start for the man and the driver.

The script for his second act is still being written.

Jack Johnson(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jack Johnson expects to graduate in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Johnson, who has interned for KJZZ radio and provides commentary for Highland High School football games, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.