Less than two years ago Kyle Larson was in NASCAR’s version of hell. He’d made racist comments no Japanese-American should make during a non-NASCAR online racing competition and was relieved of his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing in the Cup Series and suspended by NASCAR.
Larson, though, is a racer and he was able to continue to race, albeit not in the NASCAR Cup Series. The Californian returned to his roots and was soon winning his fair share (and a bit more) of open-wheel dirt contests around the country, keeping his hand in as a racer should do. He won 46 races during his NASCAR absence
Before the 2021 NASCAR season began, he was hired to drive the iconic No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for Hendrick Motorsports, with primary sponsorship from www.Hendrickcars.com. Many questioned Rick Hendrick’s sanity in hiring a driver whose career looked like it was over before the 29-year-old had a chance to really show his ability behind the wheel of a Cup car. Four-time champ Jeff Gordon, who has taken an operational position with Hendrick’s team, stood up for Larson as he became a member of the Hendrick family of Cup competitors: 2020 champ Chase Elliot, William Byron and Alex Bowman.
Now, of course, after 10 victories this season, Larson brought home Mr Hendrick’s 14th NASCAR Cup Series title and 280th Cup Series race win by being first to the checkered flags in the Series Finale 500 at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, AZ. This was a championship battle between Larson’s teammate and defending series titleholder Elliott, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.’s Toyotas to take all the marbles and, as seems to be a recent NASCAR tradition, winning the race to take the title.
That Larson had never won in Phoenix didn’t matter too much; his team helped the driver keep Truex behind with a virtuoso final pit stop, allowing Larson to nab a .398-second margin of victory on the one-mile oval. Up to the final 30 laps, it looked like Larson didn’t have much of a chance as he was fourth of the four eligible drivers for the championship.
Truex had a near four-second lead before the final caution for burning brakes and a dropped rotor on David Starr’s No. 13 Toyota. During this ninth caution, Larson’s crew put their driver in the lead with a lightning-fast and perfectly-executed pit stop, their second-best of the year. It didn’t hurt that Larson had the first pit stall, earned with pole position for this season finale. He elected to re-start outside with Hamlin next to him, Truex behind Larson and Elliott behind Hamlin.
While Truex tried to challenge the leader for this win and championship, he didn’t have the best pit stop, losing two spots. “With 20 to go, it’s going to be hard to pass anybody out front in clean air,” Truex allowed. Teammate Hamlin, who has seemingly been a bridesmaid in these championship runs his entire career, saluted the winners. “Those guys, any time you can win 10 races in a year, you’re absolutely a deserving champion.”
As for Elliott, who finished fifth behind Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney, he acknowledged the race “just didn’t work out, and the sequence of the way all that went certainly was unfortunate for us.” The 25-year-old was looking to become the youngest NASCAR driver to earn two championships.
Larson led more laps in this 500km contest, 107 of the scheduled 312, than any driver. He’s the first driver since Hendrick Motorsports’ seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson (2007) to win 10 Cup races in a season and became Chevrolet’s 33rd driver’s champion.
As he tearfully celebrated, both on the track and in Victory Lane, Larson was incredulous about his change of fortune. “I cannot believe it,” he said. “I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago, so to win a championship is crazy.
“I’ve got to say, first off, thank you so much to Rick Hendrick, Hendrickcars.com, Jeff Gordon, NASCAR, every single one of my supporters in the stands, watching at home, my family. I’ve got so many of my friends and family here. My parents, my sister, my wife [Katelyn] and [two] kids.
“Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you,” Larson concluded.
Team owner Rick Hendrick acknowledged, “We’ve always known he’s a wheelman. He worked so hard off the track. He deserves this. What a year!”
Kyle Larson and the No. 5 Chevy will begin their title defense on the banks of Daytona International Speedway with NASCAR’s traditional season-opening Daytona 500, scheduled for February 20, 2022.