Kyle Larson directly placed himself in a tumultuous situation last year and is ready for the reset that comes with a new season.
In a well-documented and inexcusable error, the six-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner used a racial slur in an iRacing event in April that subsequently cost him his job, expelling him from the seat of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet while also serving an indefinite suspension imposed by NASCAR through the end of 2020.
That, though, is in Larson’s past. The dawn of the Daytona 500 brings with it new surroundings for the 28-year-old. Ready to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, plenty of eyes will follow what Larson does both on and off the track in 2021.
A Look Back
Larson has made 223 career starts in the Cup Series but made just four in 2020 before losing his ride and incurring his penalty.
The dirt sprint car ace wowed as a rookie when he took over the No. 42 car for CGR, earning eight top fives that year, doubling those earned by predecessor Juan Pablo Montoya the year prior.
Still, it took until 2016 for the California native to first find victory lane, breaking through at Michigan International Speedway for his first career win.
His breakout season came one year later, claiming four checkered flags via a win at Auto Club Speedway, sweep at Michigan and victory at Richmond Raceway. Larson tallied 15 top fives and 20 top 10s that season and appeared destined for imminent success the next season.
But Larson’s meteoric rise cooled in 2018 going winless, though his statistics didn’t take a significant hit as he earned 12 top fives and 19 top 10s in addition to six second-place finishes. His most recent full season, 2019, resulted in yet another playoff berth and found Larson back in victory lane, winning the playoff race at Dover International Speedway.
Then came Larson’s wildly abbreviated 2020, in which he finished in the top 10 three times in his lone four starts before the COVID-19-induced hiatus.
Half of Larson’s Cup victories have come on the 2-mile oval that is Michigan. It seems fair to think that will continue as he steps into better equipment this year at Hendrick Motorsports.
But there is one track on the Cup schedule where nearly everyone who pays attention to the sport has already penciled in Larson as a potential winner: the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race on March 28.
It’s no secret that Larson has dominated the dirt racing scene for quite some time, but perhaps never more prominently than during his NASCAR suspension. Larson accumulated win after win in 410 sprints throughout the fall, dabbling in dirt late models for the first time and racing dirt midget cars as well.
His 2021 began with a second consecutive Chili Bowl victory before winning the first event of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series season by a staggering 15 seconds, leaving just eight cars on the lead lap in the process. If any track looks like a sure win for Larson barring incident, it’s the inaugural dirt race at Bristol.
That shouldn’t be Larson’s lone opportunity to win, though. Despite all the victories at Michigan, Larson’s best track statistically is Dover, where he’s earned six top fives and nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts.
Perhaps most notable is that Phoenix Raceway, site of the championship race, is another great track for Larson, where he has five top fives and seven top 10s. That may play into the 28-year-old’s hands if he can launch himself into the Championship 4 come November.
Since winning his way into the playoffs in 2016, Larson has been a lock in NASCAR’s postseason on a yearly basis.
And while he’s made the playoffs four times, he’s never broken into the Championship 4, placing a career-best sixth at season’s end at the end of 2019. Larson finished ninth in points in both 2016 and 2018 and was eighth in 2017.
But that was in the past with a CGR machine that Larson seemingly brought the best out of. Now in Hendrick equipment, the very cars that won a championship with Chase Elliott last season, expectations should be higher for Larson in 2021.
Driving the No. 5, Larson should find victory lane multiple times this season and put himself into contention for the Championship 4. He is also in a unique position where he will have to prove his driving capabilities all over again in stock cars while showing a relatively forgiving fan base that he has truthfully learned from what got him booted one year ago.
Larson is poised to do more at the Cup level than he ever has before. For his sake, he needs to. With so much experience and success in lesser equipment than what he currently has, the excuses are running slimmer and slimmer.
Now there’s nothing left but for him to prove it to everyone else.