What a difference a year makes. After sitting out most of the 2020 NASCAR season, Kyle Larson started 2021 in a new ride with a new outlook. It resulted in one of the best seasons in the playoff era: 10 wins, 20 top-five finishes, 26 top 10s — best in the series in all three categories. Larson is just the second driver to win 10 races in a year since NASCAR instituted a playoff system in 2004. The last driver to reach double digits in wins was Jimmie Johnson in 2007, and he never matched 26 top 10s in his seven-title career.
When the championship was in jeopardy at Phoenix, it was Larson’s pit crew that got him the track position he needed late in the race. The driver took it from there.
Before his suspension in 2020 for use of a racial slur on an open radio channel, Larson was considered the hottest free agent on the market, with multiple teams interested in his services. Those prospects dwindled after the incident. Ford didn’t want the public relations repercussions, and sponsors were a little gun shy as well. But Hendrick Motorsports had had its eye on the driver for years, and the timing was right: Johnson’s imminent retirement meant there was a seat open. It still wasn’t simple, because Johnson’s sponsor wasn’t on board, but a change of number (Alex Bowman took over the No. 48, while Larson landed in the newly renumbered 5 car) meant the deal was done. Owner Rick Hendrick put his own auto-sales business on the hood.
And things clicked. Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels communicate well. Daniels isn’t afraid to try strategies and adjustments, and Larson’s ability to make aggressive moves complements him well. Add a pit crew that made very few mistakes, and it’s a recipe for a title — maybe more than one.
Hendrick is stacked with young talent. Larson and Chase Elliott have claimed the last two championships, Bowman was tied for second in wins last year with a career-high four and William Byron is becoming a consistent threat for top finishes. For Larson, it means a wealth of relevant information from his teammates that his team can use to bolster its already impressive playbook.
Backing is no longer a question, as Hendrick will again feature HendrickCars.com on the car — it boosted sales and morale in Hendrick’s business, and while there may have been more sponsor options for Larson than a year ago, the boss liked what he saw.
When a driver dominates in a racecar the way Larson did last year, the big question becomes how he’ll adapt to the Next Gen car. And while that’s the question for everyone, the spotlight is on Larson as the defending champion with the stellar season just in the rearview. Given his prowess in other types of racecars, Larson should adapt well, and if he does, it’s hard to pinpoint a weakness.
Larson had just one DNF due to a crash last year, and that was at Daytona, where the racing often results in massive pileups. He also had only one engine failure; the days when engine durability can make or break a team are over.
But repeating a title is much harder than it looks on paper. Not many drivers have done it, and none have successfully defended a title under the current playoff system. But not many drivers have put together seasons like Larson did last year.
Larson has everything on his side: equipment, backing, a team that gets it done week in and week out from crew chief to over-the-wall crew, highly capable teammates and the momentum of 2021. If the new car doesn’t throw an unexpected curve, the road to the title runs through Kyle Larson.