Kyle Larson thought his NASCAR racing career was over. After he was suspended indefinitely for uttering a racial slur during an online iRacing event last year, Larson thought he might never race in the NASCAR Cup Series again.
Kyle Larson, 28, was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, lost all of his NASCAR sponsors and left the sport just as racial tension gripped the United States again. As rival and friend Bubba Wallace took the lead in NASCAR’s efforts to promote diversity and racial equality, Kyle Larson was off racing sprint cars and late models on dirt tracks throughout the country.
But after going through NASCAR’s racial sensitivity training and making other efforts to promote racial equality, Larson was reinstated near the end of last season, opening the door for him to return — if anyone would hire him.
Kyle Larson got his second chance from Hendrick Motorsports and team owner Rick Hendrick, who hired him to, in essence, replace retiring seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. Larson will drive Hendrick’s No. 5 Chevrolet, while teammate Alex Bowman will move to Johnson’s No. 48.
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Kyle Larson met with the media Monday for the first time since his return and said he is “grateful” for another opportunity in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
“I feel extremely grateful,” Larson said in a Zoom conference with the media. “I never really thought I would get another chance to race in NASCAR and I kind of accepted that throughout the middle of last year and I tried to shift my focus towards what’s ahead in my new life of racing a bunch, driving up and down the road and stuff like that. I was trying to figure out how that would be with my family, my kids, once they start school. So, yeah, like I said, I’m grateful for the opportunity that Mr. H has given me. It’s pretty unbelievable and I’m very thankful. I hope to do a good job for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and all my sponsors — just do a good job on and off the track to really take advantage of this second chance that I may not have deserved.”
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How many NASCAR races has Kyle Larson won?
Kyle Larson, a former sprint-car and dirt-track star, entered NASCAR with huge expectations. With ringing endorsements from such NASCAR legends as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, he was expected to be a big star right away.
Kyle Larson struggled, however, in his first two seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing. After two winless seasons, he scored his first NASCAR Cup victory in 2016. The following year, he finally broke out with four wins in the No. 42 Chevrolet. In six full seasons with Ganassi, Larson had six career Cup victories and four top-10 points finishes.
His career went off the rails, however, when he used the N-word toward a friend during an online iRacing event while live NASCAR was halted during COVID. Kyle Larson was immediately suspended by NASCAR, ending his season.
What did Kyle Larson do during his NASCAR suspension?
Kyle Larson proved during his suspension that he can still win in a variety of vehicles. He won an astounding 46 dirt races last summer and scored a record seven straight sprint car victories in Stewart’s All-Star Circuit of Champions series.
He is excited about returning to NASCAR with one of the sport’s elite organizations. Hendrick is NASCAR’s all-time winningest team and has won 13 Cup Series championships, including Chase Elliott’s triumph last year.
“I’d like to be able to come back to NASCAR, being with an amazing organization that just won the championship, go out there and be strong and win a lot of races too,” Larson said. “I had a 50 percent win percentage last year. Obviously, I know that’s probably impossible to ever happen in NASCAR. But I’d like to be competitive each week, win a lot of races and hopefully contend for the championship.”
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Though Kyle Larson is a proven winner and could emerge as a championship contender at Hendrick Motorsports, he knows he has plenty of work to do on his image and reputation off the track. He began that process late last year, addressing the controversial incident up front and working to show he has learned from his mistake and changed.
“I think I do have a lot to prove off the race track, showing people who I really am and showing people the good person that I know am,” he said. “Yeah, I think there is definitely a lot I need to prove on and off the race track, and I’m looking forward to getting that started here in a few days.”
Larson’s comeback will begin Wednesday with practice and qualifying at Daytona International Speedway. His first race with Hendrick will be Thursday in the Duel at Daytona, which will set the field for the 63rd Daytona 500.
Kyle Larson can’t wait to climb behind the wheel of the No. 5 Chevrolet for the first time.
“I think I’m just really excited,” he said. “I feel like time has flown by for me up until these last two or three weeks. It’s felt like forever to get down to Daytona. I drove my bus down yesterday and was just excited to get to that day – get to Sunday to get to drive it because I felt like once I got down here, things will start moving a little bit quicker again. Just ready to go. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a Cup car. Now that I’m with a great team, there’s just a lot that I’m excited about.”
Kyle Larson’s most excitement comes from just having an opportunity to race in NASCAR again. An opportunity he feared might not ever come again.
“I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to race in NASCAR, but I was trying to do everything I could on and off the race track throughout last year to try and get that opportunity,” he said. “I’m thankful that Mr. Hendrick saw the work I was putting in and picked up the phone to get me hired on at their race team. It was a tough year, for sure, but I grew as a person, grew as a race car driver, and now I look forward to putting everything together this year and be a great person and a great race car driver.”