If Kyle Larson could hit the reset button on 2020, he probably would. Oh, the year kicked off just fine — Larson posted three top 10s in the first four races and was qualifying well, setting himself up for strong runs. He was top dog at Chip Ganassi Racing and looking to improve on his career-best sixth-place points finish from 2019, when the COVID-19 break happened. But coronavirus didn't derail Larson.
As NASCAR went virtual, turning to iRacing during the hiatus, Larson joined his fellow drivers in that arena. Until one day in April, when checking radio communications, he said a word to his spotter that changed his world.
Larson didn't realize his radio feed was live and that anyone who was listening would hear the racial slur he uttered. But they did hear, and the consequences were swift. NASCAR suspended him indefinitely. His sponsors, including manufacturer Chevrolet, washed their hands of him. Ganassi fired him. Suddenly the question mark on Larson was no longer whether he could close races at the Cup Series level, but whether anyone would take a chance on him. Larson was slated to become a free agent after the 2020 season and was looking like he'd be a hot commodity, with the potential of a bidding war between teams that had long coveted his services. Larson's suspension changed that. It took months of outside rehabilitation, from volunteering at the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia to a heartfelt, public national apology tour to open the door for second chances. Over time, owner Rick Hendrick was convinced, willing to give this level of talent a second chance in top-tier equipment.
Now, Larson enters 2021 looking for one thing: redemption. He gets a fresh start with Hendrick, including a new car number — the No. 88 will take Hendrick's No. 5 for the season, the original number the organization raced when it came on the scene in 1984.
Larson will be paired with former No. 48 crew chief Cliff Daniels, who called the shots for seven-time champion driver Jimmie Johnson in 2019 and 2020. Daniels is a steady hand on the box and calls a clean race. He's ready to contend for wins with Larson. No one questions the strength of Hendrick equipment: it's a step up for Larson after languishing at underperforming Chip Ganassi Racing for years.
What Larson doesn't have as of press time is sponsorship. When Ally Financial chose Alex Bowman over Larson, Bowman moved to the No. 48 ride, leaving his seat for his new teammate but not his backers. Hendrick has supplemented his teams in the past with his substantial auto dealerships, and Larson's signing indicates that Hendrick is willing to fund the team himself. However, outside backing would be a vote of confidence for the team.
Larson kept busy during his exile, racing on dirt, winning 45 races mainly with his own sprint car team (which he has since sold). Hendrick demanded a reduced schedule of dirt racing; can greater focus enhance Larson's 2021 NASCAR performance?
Larson's ability behind the wheel has never been in question. But in NASCAR, the ability to finish races will be key. He has six Cup Series wins in six full-time seasons, but he's seen many more slip away in the closing laps. Many of those were because of getting caught in other drivers' incidents, while others happened in the pits, but Larson is at the point where he needs to put together complete races at NASCAR's longer race lengths.
Despite everything, Larson's not in a bad position entering 2021. His new ride is an upgrade. He's likely to make the playoffs, and he's capable of going deep. Make no mistake — he has to. Second chances like these don't come around often.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 12/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)