Kyle Larson's long road back to the NASCAR winner's circle is complete
Kyle Larson did something on Sunday he may have thought impossible less than a year ago. He was standing on the roof of a race car, his hands thrust into the air to celebrate a win. The car was the No. 5 Camaro of Hendrick Motorsports, and the victory was in the NASCAR Cup Series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The last time the now 28-year old saw the winner’s circle was Oct. 6, 2019, at Dover International Speedway. It’s not that he couldn’t find it again, because he nearly derailed a promising career ten races later, six at the tail end of that year and four more to start 2020.
“I guess I didn't know if I'd ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” Kyle Larson said in his post-race interview. “To get this awesome opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports and Mr. H taking a massive chance on me, then going out there and being strong all year, it's been great.”
Kyle Larson was unsure if his career was over when he was suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing last year. He was a six-time Cup Series winner but found himself unemployed, his contract torn up. Hoping to find a way back, he would have gladly accepted any ride offered to him. None were forthcoming, however, because he was in exile.
Kyle Larson’s Twitter account went dark due to all the hate messages for his now-infamous epithet in an iRacing event. He was without a NASCAR home for the first time since he was 19. He went back to his roots, driving sprints where wins came in bunches, including a dirt late model victory at Port Royal Speedway. But comparing sprints and late models to NASCAR is like likening local theater to Broadway.
If Kyle Larson were to get another chance, his road to redemption would be filled with potholes. No one would overlook his past, especially with NASCAR doing a U-turn with race relations not long after. Maybe it was a wake-up call for the sanctioning body; perhaps it was Bubba Wallace becoming the face of change.
Times change, and so has Kyle Larson. There would be endless apologies, with the recipients including Wallace, the only full-time person of color in the sport. After the Pennzoil 400 was over and burnouts done, Wallace was one of the first to come over and congratulate him.
“It meant a lot to have Bubba come to Victory Lane. He always does a really good job of congratulating the winners. Yeah, I saw him waiting to say hi or whatever to me as I ran over there, and just had a quick moment with him. He said congrats. He's always believed in me. So that was special,” said Kyle Larson after his post-race celebration.
When NASCAR lifted Kyle Larson's suspension, conditionally, Rick Hendrick signed him to a multi-year contract.
“Well, I think (there was) a lot of excitement because when we announced that he was coming to drive for us, of course, the whole company started watching him in sprint cars,” Hendrick said at the same press conference. “Everybody was tuned in to the Chili Bowl. We knew his talent. I've worked with Kyle when he was at Ganassi. I've always had a relationship with him. I didn't really expect for it to come this quick because I just thought it would take more time to gel. But our cars are fast. He's a champion, really. I'm so lucky to have him. Cliff (Danield, crew chief) is just a great young man. To win in the fourth race, especially when you don't have any practice, you just show up and race, it's really been awesome.”
Maybe it was respect for Rick Hendrick, but no one asked any questions about Kyle Larson’s past, only touching Bubba Wallace offering congratulations. But if you wanted to get an idea how far Larson has come since that iRacing event, this is what he said last October when he applied for reinstatement.
“Since April, I’ve done a lot of reflecting,” Kyle Larson said. “I realized how little I really knew about the African-American experience in this country and racism in general. Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago because it would’ve made me a better person – the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. The kind who makes an effort to understand the hate and oppression it symbolizes and the depth of pain it has caused Black people throughout history and still to this day. It was past time for me to shut up, listen, and learn.”
The world is Kyle Larson's oyster once again.