Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson on Cup title chances: 'I don’t view what I’m doing now as redemption'
Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson on Cup title chances: 'I don’t view what I’m doing now as redemption'

Updated Sep. 24, 2021 5:38 p.m. ET

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer

Kyle Larson knows what he has in front of him the next seven weeks: an opportunity to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship.

He has had the opportunity four previous times in his career, but never one like this.

Never one where he already had earned six victories in a season – he had celebrated just six wins his entire 223-race career entering this year.


Never one where he appears as the odds-on favorite to win the championship as he has led the most laps and his victories have come on a variety of circuits.

Never one where if he went back in time 15 months ago, he couldn’t even conceive he’d have the opportunity, certainly not so soon.

After a highly controversial 2020 season, Kyle Larson is now the favorite to win his first NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2021. (Getty Images)

Larson, frankly, doesn’t like to look back. He never really has even before his self-inflicted drama of 2020. He would just go from race to race being Kyle Larson, a guy who gets paid to drive a race car really, really fast. Always moving forward, calculating the next move, the next turn.

Racing, while a lot of work, comes easy to him. But life didn’t last year. 

After casually using a racial slur in acknowledging a friend on what he thought was a private channel during an online racing event in April 2020, Larson saw his professional life collapse in days. NASCAR suspended him. Sponsors dropped him. Chip Ganassi Racing had no choice but to fire him.

As he has won races and signed new sponsors, the comeback storyline of Larson, to many observers, focuses on redemption. Are the wins a sign of redemption? Does his continuous work with various groups focused on diversity signify redemption?

The thing is, Larson doesn’t use that word.

"I don’t really have an opinion of people using it, but I don’t view what I’m doing now as redemption at all," Larson told FOX Sports in an interview last week.

"I just want to show people that I am a great race-car driver, but I’m also a great person and I’m not who some people think I was from that one night."

The Initial Road Back

When racing resumed once feasible during the pandemic in 2020, Larson had no NASCAR ride. A star in midgets and an accomplished driver in sprint cars, he continued to race, dominating in various sprint-car events, enjoying his best results ever in the World of Outlaws, considered the top sprint-car series in the nation. He started driving dirt late models and immediately was a threat to win.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, the car owner and racing legend, couldn’t hire him for his NASCAR team because Ford Motor Company didn’t want to take the risk. And Larson wasn’t sure if anyone else would.

"Fifteen months ago, I would have thought I would be racing for a World of Outlaws championship at this point, not a NASCAR Cup Series championship," Larson said. "So it is a little bit surreal, but I don’t know. I don’t really like to think about it."

Larson says he wasn't sure he'd back in NASCAR, and certainly didn't expect to be contending, as soon as 2021. (Getty Images)

The first person who stepped up was Rick Hendrick, who certainly had hoped he could land Larson even if Stewart-Haas Racing seemed a better initial fit, with Stewart’s sprint-car racing background similar to Larson’s. Hendrick, the most successful owner in NASCAR Cup Series history, knows talent when he sees it. He also knows a business opportunity when he sees it.

So, he sponsored Larson himself through his automotive dealership’s online sales website for select races. As Larson started rattling off wins and Larson’s grassroots fan base started buying passenger vehicles in support of their driver, Hendrick’s automotive division announced in July it increased its sponsorship commitment to Larson, allowing Hendrick to sign Larson through 2023.

Larson heads this weekend to the place that set the tone for him this year. NASCAR returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the site of Larson’s first win for Hendrick Motorsports in just the fourth race of 2021.

It was in that race, that made people believe that this could be Larson’s comeback season. It very well could, but Larson isn’t into looking back.

"I don’t want to think about [last year] too much," Larson said. "I’m just excited that I have had people who believed in me from the beginning and through the hard times, and people who have stepped up that did believe in me and allowed me to have this opportunity to chase a dream and chase a championship."

Success on the Track

Considered a top talent, the question at the start of the year was how long would it take for Larson to win in Hendrick Motorsports equipment. And would there be any rust not having raced a stock car since March of 2020.

Those answers didn’t take long.

"It was just good to put a great race together that day and really kind of get us all just confident," Larson said. "I think we were confident, but I guess being confident in our confidence was good to have that win at Vegas."

Larson has found victory lane often in 2021, winning six races – which matches the previous total for his career. (Getty Images).

The confidence came from Larson having watched how strong Hendrick drivers had raced in the past, including Chase Elliott winning the 2020 Cup title. Then he met and started working with crew chief Cliff Daniels, considered one of the smartest engineers on the Hendrick campus.

But a smart engineer doesn’t always correlate to crew chief success. Daniels didn’t win with Jimmie Johnson in 50 races with the seven-time Cup champion leading into his retirement.

Larson, though, could see it in this team.

"Cliff and his leadership and how high of a standard he holds everybody to and just the way he communicates, just everything about him, is to me what I view a Cup Series crew chief being like," Larson said.

"And, too, I feel … Hendrick Motorsports overall has a lot of great people and that gives you confidence that you can have a good season."

There isn’t any big secret to how Larson gets the job done. He has the innate ability, as team owner Rick Hendrick said, to put the car where it doesn’t appear it will either fit or not lose spots.

"Kyle is an awesome talent," Hendrick said. "Some of the moves he makes, what he can do with a car in different situations, find a place to run on the track, he's got an awesome amount of talent.

"I knew he was talented, but you see him in sprint cars and midgets and everything else, … he wants to win. He's super dedicated. He's all business."

For his teammates, they can watch what he does, but that doesn’t mean they can emulate him.

"He drives really freaking fast," said Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman. "I am trying to do that myself each and every week.

"I don’t think there is one thing in particular that I can take away from his driving style and try to duplicate."

Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman sums up Larson's talent simply: "He drives really freaking fast." (Getty Images)

What Larson has done this season might not get duplicated in a long time.

Larson had a stretch in May-June where he won three consecutive points races with the All-Star Race added in for four consecutive victories. They came in the longest race of the year (the 600-mile event at 1.5-mile Charlotte), a road course (Sonoma), one of the shortest (all-star at the 1.5-mile Texas) and one of the new Cup tracks (1.33-mile concrete Nashville).

He said he never dreamed of having such a stretch. No driver has won four consecutive points races since 2007, and the only drivers to win three consecutive races in the last 10 years were Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch (twice), Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. All have won Cup titles.

"It’s been a long time and you don’t really see that," Larson said about the four victories. "It’s rare to see somebody win two in a row these days. I think that’s why I never really thought that I could see myself winning four in a row.

"But it’s cool and you have to enjoy it in the moment, and hopefully we can do it again someday. It’s cool just to be competitive each week really."

Daniels appears to be the crew chief Larson needs. He meticulously and analytically and simply explains the scenarios that could play out for Larson. He paints a picture for Larson on the strategy in the way Larson can understand.

And then Daniels lets Larson do his job, drive the car, as he did Saturday in capturing the victory at Bristol Motor Speedway. Larson has won two of the biggest races this year, with the 600 at Charlotte and the night race at Bristol.

"Kyle is made for these moments," Daniels said after the Bristol win. "He does such a good job when everything, the energy, gets ramped up.

"He knows how to just focus in and drive his butt off and stay on the gas."

Larson now has a team around him that could deliver his first championship over the next seven weeks. (Getty Images)

Daniels might give Larson a little indication of the changes done to the car during a race, but Larson doesn’t need to know a whole lot about the car to go fast.

Larson couldn’t care less about the springs in the car.

"That to me is too much information and that’s not what I get paid to worry about," Larson said.

Some drivers want to know that info and one of the questions is whether Laron could become a NASCAR champion without deep knowledge of race car setups, without wanting to make suggestions on setups or changes they should make during the race. That was always the perception of him anyway.

"I’ve been impressed with his ability to dissect and break down the car," Larson teammate William Byron said. "Everyone said, ‘Man, he doesn’t really know a lot about cars and just drives and just gets in and goes.’ That’s true, but I think his feedback is just similar to Chase and I and Alex.

"I don’t feel like he’s any more vague about the car. He’s pretty knowledgeable about the things that are important."

Larson still feels he breaks down the car worse than any of his teammates. He feels he keeps things simple, saying whether the car is loose or tight or bouncing too much and not giving suggestions for changes.

"I feel like everybody else talks about their cars and how they handle," Larson said about competition meetings. "I talk about the race and how it went. … I feel the car, but I think with me and my background of dirt racing and stuff and not having pit stops, you just kind of ‘All right, this is how my car is handling, I’ve got to figure out how to drive it ‘and then you get a feel of how you want it to feel."

Where has Larson improved? Some would say he has shown that he has been able to finish races where he has the best car or at least a winning car. Larson bristles a little at criticism that longer races were more of a challenge to him under the theory that his sprint-car events are so short, that maybe he just couldn’t win consistently in races of 400 or 500 miles.

Because he grew up racing sprint cars, he has had a more emotional tie when he wins big events he dreamed of winning, resulting in criticism that maybe he didn’t have the desire to become a NASCAR champion.

"A lot of media is like he must be doing something different this year to be so much better and his preparation must be different and he cares about NASCAR," Larson said.

"No. Nothing is different. It’s just I have a really good race car, a really good race team and that’s what I think kind of helps me out."

There is one thing that is different: Larson said he has a different mentality that makes him a better race car driver.

It’s a mentality he has developed over the last year.

"[I’m] able to block out outside noise and really just focus on the driving and not caring as much about what people’s opinions are of you," Larson said.

"You’re realizing that you’re never going to make everybody happy is one thing. Just blocking noise out and doing something you love and enjoying it and having fun with it. It’s kind of made my mentality in me staying calmer much better."


Which brings this story to off the track and how Larson has navigated his return to racing. Certainly, if Larson had his choice, it wouldn’t take a suspension for him to improve his mentality in the race car.

Since he has signed with Hendrick last fall, he hasn’t had many uncomfortable moments in his return. Some of his racing preparation includes continuing to go to Ganassi, where trainer Josh Wise is based. Wise, a former Cup driver, works with several drivers on their mental and physical preparation for races.

Every day he is not racing a sprint car and is in North Carolina, Larson takes his kids to school and then heads over to Ganassi for the training sessions.

He was concerned that it would be awkward. Of the many people he let down, he cost several people at Ganassi a chance to have a great season (and bonuses for that great season) when he got fired in 2020.

"I was self-conscious and nervous at first to go in there, but everybody’s been really cool there and it’s honestly, it’s really nice to get to pull in there and see a lot of familiar faces and have people stop to check-in and talk and just get to see them and talk to them," Larson said.

Larson said he didn’t have to do any outreach inside of Hendrick with any Black members of the team and has not had any negative experiences since his return. Hendrick Automotive Group vice president Darryl Jackson, one of the executives who was key in solidifying the Larson sponsorship, called him soon after his hiring and they talk often.

Jackson said Larson’s success has generated enthusiasm within the work force of the company as well as with potential customers.

"[Sponsoring him] was a no-brainer," said Jackson, who is Black, on the day of the announcement. "When you feel what Kyle felt with our people and the passion [at Hendrick Automotive], this is incredible. This is exactly what you want to see.

"It’s hard to say no to that."

Why has Larson not seemed to have a difficult time this year after his egregious mistake in 2020? Some would say this is a society of second chances. Some would say that winning can overcome anything. And many probably believe Larson when he has said the use of the word came from a place of ignorance and not from hate.

Larson, who is half Japanese, has worked with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia since 2017 and continues to work with the group. After his use of the racial slur, he had training sessions with diversity and inclusion expert Doug Harris. He started working with the Sanneh Foundation in Minnesota.

In addition to participating in events at the UYRS and the Sanneh Foundation, Larson started his foundation to support those two groups and Hendrick’s charitable efforts.

He has pledged more than $110,000 and raised nearly $190,000 through a program where he gives $5 for every lap completed and $5,000 for every top-5 finish. He took over a charity event that Tony Stewart used to have during sprint car’s biggest event, the Knoxville Nationals, and raised an additional $42,000.

Larson says he will let others judge his off-track actions since he returned from his suspension. (Getty Images)

Larson has said that it isn’t up to him to say whether he’s doing enough off the track to compensate for the hurt he caused people. He certainly won’t try to evaluate his off-track program during the racing season.

"Until you sit down and really look at it, you can’t have a definitive opinion of yourself and what you’ve accomplished and done off the track," Larson said.

"Right now, I’m in the thick of the most important part of our season and I want to focus on the championship and stuff, but I do believe the first year of having my own foundation, we’ve done a good job."

UYRS founder Anthony Martin received criticism last year for sticking with Larson and supporting him in his comeback.

Martin says his wife gave Larson a history lesson on racism a year ago, and "he actually sat back and listened and learned."

"Some celebrity friends of mine … sent me emails and texts and things like that," Martin said. "The question I had for them when they came at me about this was, ‘Have you ever met Kyle? Do you know Kyle? I know you have a seen and heard about him in the media and all this other kind of stuff, but do you know him as a person?’"

If school participants have questions about racing, Martin picks up the phone and calls Larson, who had a member of the group at a race in 2019. He also has donated racing simulators to the school.

"I know that Kyle is real, what Kyle has been doing for the school is real," Martin said. "And for me, that means absolutely everything. … They say actions speak a lot louder than words. So his actions and what he’s doing for the school is speaking more than anything else."

Larson doesn’t get loud all that often, when he’s speaking or in promoting activities he’s doing off the track. He hasn’t had a significant social media presence throughout his career.

It’s what makes it difficult to sometimes gauge his interest or his commitment. The methodical focus it takes to win in various racing disciplines doesn’t always lend itself to big personalities.

Larson felt the sting of his actions last year. He had processed through that. He doesn’t want to re-live it. He says he will quietly go about trying to live his life, trying to find meaningful ways to make a difference while also shattering racing record books.

"There was a lot of emotions throughout last year and uncertainty and not knowing what your future is going to be at least in NASCAR and kind of coming to a point where you had accepted it and were OK with it and all that." Larson said.

"And then things kind of change and turn around and everything has worked out to how it is today. It’s just crazy how life works."

Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!


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