Prisoners get second chances. Cheating spouses get second chances. People who get life-saving organ transplants get second chances.
What they do after getting those second chances oftentimes dictates how the rest of their lives will go.
That even extends to sports such as NASCAR. How many drivers over the years have been given second chances after being punished for things ranging from drug use to domestic violence allegations?
Kyle Larson is the latest NASCAR driver to get a second chance and is unquestionably making the most of it.
A little over a year ago, Larson was suspended indefinitely after uttering a vile and racist word in an online race. To many, Larson’s career appeared over. He was immediately fired from Chip Ganassi Racing and lost almost all of his NASCAR-related sponsors.
While he uttered an unfortunate word, there was something positive that fortuitously came about for Larson: even though NASCAR suspended him, he was welcomed to race across the country in dirt and short track events, including the World of Outlaws.
In doing so, those race tracks and sanctioning bodies threw Larson’s life and career a life preserver. He was able to continue making a living while going through NASCAR’s version of jail, including sensitivity and racial awareness training.
Larson, who as an individual of half-Asian descent, was himself the victim of racism and bigotry in his life. He now learned what it’s like when he uttered a hateful word and how all people – particularly people of color – reacted. It hurt, it was painful and it was a word Larson likely will never say again.
As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, it was unclear when – or even if – NASCAR would reinstate Larson. But after numerous discussions with team owner Rick Hendrick, who was one of the few team owners in the sport willing to give Larson a second chance, the young 28-year-old (he turns 29 next month) California native was hired to essentially replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports heading into the 2021 season.
Larson has taken his second chance to heart and not only has become a better man as a result of all he went through over the past year-plus, he’s also driving the best he ever has since coming to NASCAR in 2013.
In the first 16 points-paying races of 2021, Larson has three wins, nine top-five and 11 top-10 finishes, putting him solidly in second place in the NASCAR Cup standings.
And on top of all that, for a guy who took a tremendous financial hit last season while being suspended without pay, he earned back a good chunk of the money he lost by dominating and earning a fourth win this season in Sunday’s annual non-points NASCAR Cup All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.
There’s no question Larson is the hottest thing going in NASCAR right now. He’s won the last three Cup races he’s competed in, the points-paying races at Charlotte and at his home track of Sonoma, as well as Sunday’s All-Star event.
He’s only 47 points out of first place, which has been occupied for all but one week thus far this season by Denny Hamlin. And if you don’t think Hamlin doesn’t hear Larson’s footsteps getting louder and louder, as well as closer and closer, you’d be a fool. Hamlin has a target on his back and Larson is the man coming to hunt him down.
NASCAR is now only two races away from reaching the halfway mark of the 36-race season. If Larson continues at the pace he’s going, he will easily top his best prior season performance from back in 2017, when he won a Cup career-best four races. Unfortunately, he didn’t do as well as he would have liked in the playoffs that year, finishing a distant eighth place.
But if Larson can keep doing what he’s doing this year, his name will definitely be in the mix among the favorites to win the 2021 Cup championship, joining guys like Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and others.
There’s no doubt that Larson learned a very valuable lesson last year. It was both a learning and teaching moment in his life.
Now he’s having yet another learning and teaching moment, but of a much more positive ilk and end result: give someone who made a big mistake a second chance and he’ll show just how appreciative he is that someone like Hendrick and NASCAR believed in him enough to provide that second chance.
And in return, Larson is paying back not only a significant return on the investment in him by both Hendrick and NASCAR, but he’s also now paying big dividends in the process, as well.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski