Larson Lands At Hendrick
By Bob Pockrass
Hendrick Motorsports holds the record for NASCAR Cup Series driver championships.
Jimmie Johnson has captured seven, Jeff Gordon won four and Terry Labonte earned one at HMS. If HMS doesn’t win the championship this year, Johnson would be the only Hendrick driver to win a title over the last 20 years.
So it should come as no surprise that Hendrick Motorsports announced Wednesday that it has hired Kyle Larson to drive its No. 5 Cup car in a multiyear deal starting in 2021.
This is an organization designed to win championships, and Larson is considered a championship-caliber driver. Cliff Daniels, the current crew chief for the retiring Jimmie Johnson, will be Larson’s crew chief.
Considered a generational talent, Larson’s stock-car career came to a temporary halt after he used a racial slur April 12 during what he thought was a private chat while competing in an online racing event. He was quickly suspended by NASCAR, dropped by sponsors and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing.
"Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world," Hendrick said in a news release. "He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program.
"More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners and NASCAR. Kyle and I have had many, many conversations leading up to today’s announcement."
Those conversations, Larson said, didn’t just focus on racing.
"Mr. Hendrick is one of the people who extended a hand to me over the past six months," Larson said. "Our initial conversations were not about racing. He cares about me as a person and wants to see me succeed beyond driving.
"I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the commitment, the faith and the confidence from him and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports."
Larson has won 38 races, primarily in sprint cars, since his NASCAR suspension. An absolute superstar on dirt, he has had success but not dominated on asphalt. He has earned six Cup wins (plus the 2019 all-star race) and four playoff berths in 223 Cup starts.
At just 28 years old – and with his relatively limited asphalt experience compared to many of his competitors – his ability to handle fast race cars screams potential. His 101 top-10s in 223 races (45 percent) makes many believe he is on the brink of greatness.
Larson will join an organization whose average driver age will be 26 at the start of next season. Larson, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron will give Hendrick a driver lineup that has 18 Cup wins (potentially more with three races left in 2020) and 14 playoff berths.
"Hendrick Motorsports is a championship organization that has set a high bar for performance and for how its drivers represent the team and its partners," Larson said.
"My goal is to win races, be a great teammate, continue my personal efforts to grow, and hold myself to that high standard personally and professionally."
As Hendrick showed 34 years ago when he hired renegade driver Tim Richmond, he isn’t afraid to take a chance if he feels the driver has the talent.
That is what he is doing with Larson, who has spent the last several months fulfilling NASCAR’s reinstatement requirements as well as doing outreach and education on his own.
He completed NASCAR’s sensitivity training April 21. He started diversity training in April 27. He met with Jackie Joyner-Kersee and toured Ferguson, Missouri. He volunteered with the Tony Sanneh Foundation in Minnesota in May and returned to the area in June to visit the George Floyd Memorial. He has met with participants of the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia.
"I’m confident about what’s in his heart and his desire to be a champion in all aspects of his life and career," Hendrick said. "Kyle has done important work over the past six months, and Hendrick Motorsports is going to support those continued efforts."
NASCAR reinstated him Oct. 19, and he will be allowed to return to NASCAR racing in 2021. He must continue working with NASCAR’s diversity programs and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE).
"Making the absolute most of this platform and the opportunity in front of me is my focus," Larson said. "I know what’s expected of me and what I expect of myself, on and off the track."