Kyle Larson will be back for NASCAR’s 2021 Cup Series in a big way, having received permission to regain a seat in the series last week. Larson, 28, who was banned after making inappropriate racial remarks earlier in the year, has used the time wisely, wiping up the open-wheel ranks with win after win after win, even as he’s worked to remake his reputation away from the racetrack.
It hasn’t been easy for someone who meteorically rose through the open-wheel, primarily USAC ranks, to recharge both his professional and personal reputations. Racing well is something Larson’s always been able to do; his behavior outside the car – and occasionally on the track – had to be impeccable for NASCAR to permit the Elk Grove, California racer another opportunity.
Now that he’s got the okay, Larson has a prime position, earning a ride with Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet, a car that’s been parked since 2017, just waiting for the right driver and partners. Hendrick Motorsports announced it’s signed Larson to a multi-year contract that brings the Japanese-American racer to a team that has won in the NASCAR Cup Series 12 times.
With a legacy of more than 250 victories across a number of sanctioning bodies and vehicle styles, Larson continues a career that began at the age of seven. In addition to his open wheel winged and non-winged sprint car success, Larson has succeeded in NASCAR’s stock cars, in karts, trucks and sports cars. He had his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 2013 and was named 2014 Rookie of the Year. Larson has 223 starts at NASCAR’s elite level, has six Cup victories among his 20 points-paying NASCAR national series wins, primarily with Chip Ganassi Racing. Since May, Larson has won 38 times on dirt, primarily racing sprint cars.
“Kyle is, unquestionably, one of the most talented race car drivers in the world,” Rick Hendrick, team owner said. “He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program. More importantly,” Hendrick noted, “I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners and NASCAR.” To that extent, Hendrick has paired Larson with crew chief Cliff Daniels, 32, currently team leader of the No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, driven by seven-time Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson, who departs the series on a full-time basis at the close of this season racing, coincidentally, for Ganassi in the NTT INDYCAR Series.
Rick Hendrick and Kyle Larson went through a long process of conversations leading up to this announcement. “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 stated. “Kyle has done important work over the past six months, and Hendrick Motorsports is going to support those continued efforts.”
Kyle Larson continues to be NASCAR’s only Asian-American racer and the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate racing full-time at the Cup level. He’s a mentor for that program in addition to his volunteer work with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia, as well as the Minneapolis-based Sanneh Foundation, which advances diversity, equity and community well-being. A resident of North Carolina, Larson and his wife Katelyn have a son, Owen, and daughter, Audrey.
“Hendrick Motorsports is a championship organization that has set a high bar for performance and for how its derivers represent the team and its partners,” Larson said in accepting this position. “My goal is to win races, be a great teammate, continue my personal efforts to grow and to hold myself to that high standard personally and professionally. I know what’s expected of me and what I expect of myself, on and off the track.”
During his banishment from NASCAR, Rick Hendrick was one of the people who reached out to Larson. “Our initial conversations were not about racing,” the driver revealed. “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.”
This upcoming, 2021 season marks the return of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevy; the team will no longer field the No. 88 car number it has raced in the Cup Series since 2008, keeping the squad to the four-car maximum dictated by NASCAR. That No. 5 car was the original number campaigned by Hendrick Motorsports from its 1984 beginnings. Geoff Bodine contributed three victories, including Hendrick’s first as a Cup series car owner, at Martinsville Speedway in April of 1984.
“The ‘5’ is special to me. It’s the original,” Hendrick said. “I view it as Hendrick Motorsports’ flagship team in a lot of ways. To bring the car back to the racetrack is meaningful for my family and for many of our team members and fans. We plan to build on its winning history with Kyle and Cliff.” Commercial partners have not been revealed.
With the addition of Larson, the average age of Hendrick Motorsports’ 2021 driver lineup, including Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman, will be 26 years old at the start of the season in Daytona Beach. Combined, these four drivers have already won 18 Cup Series points races and earned 14 playoff berths. “I’m excited about our roster of young talent,” Hendrick said. “We have a team that is built to win races and compete for championships for years to come.”