The announcement has been signed, sealed and delivered: Kyle Larson will drive for Hendrick Motorsports in 2021 in the NASCAR Cup Series.
In addition to the signing of Larson, the team will bring back the No. 5, a storied number for Hendrick Motorsports that last was on track in 2017 with Kasey Kahne. Crew chief Cliff Daniels, who currently sits atop the box for Jimmie Johnson, will be paired with Larson.
It was no secret in recent weeks that Hendrick was interested in Larson. When he was reinstated by NASCAR following a six-month suspension, all signs pointed to a spot at HMS.
No one, including Larson, saw what was coming in April for the 28-year-old. Before the season started, he was arguably the top prospect on many teams’ lists, including Hendrick’s. When Larson lost his sponsors and job after using a racial slur on an open iRacing channel, there was an uncertainty if he would return to NASCAR at all, let alone in 2021.
Now Larson will be with a championship organization and on a roster full of young talent. But will he live up to the hype and bright lights of Hendrick?
If Larson had never been suspended and still signed with Hendrick, there was going to be a microscope on him. Now that he has been given a second chance, it gets even closer.
Larson certainly has the talent to succeed. While his No. 42 ride at Chip Ganassi Racing was a good one, it was a tick off from being one of the top teams in the Cup Series. However, Larson was able to put it in victory lane six times, including four times in 2017. In 2019, he clinched a Round of 8 playoff berth with a win at Dover International Speedway.
Not only did this success put him on the radar, but so too did his accomplishments on dirt. Larson has won local, national and even global dirt races on a large scale. He won the coveted the Golden Driller at the Chili Bowl Nationals in January, an accomplishment that Larson strongly desired. When he was out of a job in NASCAR, Larson went above and beyond to prove his worth by winning 42 dirt races in 82 starts, including eight in a row at one point. Those performances, along with his effort to earn back his credibility, put him back on the radar.
There will be challenges next season. While he is a quick learner, Larson has not been in a Cup car since March, though he has experience with the current package. He is also on a new team with new expectations, new crew members and a new ride. His crew chief, Daniels, will also have to learn a new driver. Daniels was named Johnson’s crew chief mid-way through 2019, and the pair is still searching for its first win. Daniels will also be looking to earn his first playoff berth atop the box in 2021. Instead of making calls for a legendary veteran on his way out, he will be coaching a young driver with a whole different style.
While Hendrick has found plenty of gems in its past, the sting of what could have been has occurred multiple times. Tim Richmond came to HMS in 1986 and won nine races in two seasons, a superstar in the making. Unfortunately, Richmond became ill and passed away just as things looked bright. In 2004, the team called Brian Vickers to Cup after he won the 2003 Xfinity Series championship. Three seasons later, Vickers left the team for Red Bull Racing. Kyle Busch won four races and Rookie of the Year while at HMS but made the decision to pursue another opportunity at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008. And while Kahne had his moments of success at HMS from 2012-2017, the expectation that Kahne would finally reach his potential and win a title never happened.
Hendrick has also struggled to have all four cars on the same page. Johnson has had issues the past three seasons and could be given the title of the fourth car at the team — unthinkable years ago, for sure. Kahne seemed to face it from 2015-2017. Casey Mears never could get on the same page as his teammates in 2007 and 2008. Even Busch faced some struggles in his time there. While Larson gets a lot out of his equipment, what will he do to avoid becoming the fourth car?
Larson certainly has the talent and makings to be a superstar in the No. The question is if external factors affect him and can he stay consistent enough to get to the pinnacle. Larson had success at CGR, but the inconsistencies to win or go deep in the playoffs plagued him at times.
Now Larson has a ride that can provide more leverage and ability to consistently win. He has the potential, talent and drive to make this move a long-term success. 2021 will be a great look to see how far the young star can go.