The past 10 months of Kyle Larson’s life have been a roller coaster, but the wild ride peaked on Sunday (March 7).
Larson led 103 laps to dominate and win the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Hendrick Motorsports and first since losing his job last year after uttering a racial slur in an iRacing event in April 2020.
The team behind him showed its belief in Larson by hiring him to drive the team’s flagship No. 5 car, paired with the same group that Jimmie Johnson finished his illustrious career with in November.
To execute, though, was all on Larson. And it took just one month for the talented 28-year-old to deliver after Hendrick picked him up off the scrap heap.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” Larson said. “To get this awesome opportunity with Hendrick Motorsports and Mr. H taking a massive chance on me, then going out there and being strong all year, it’s been great.”
As Larson celebrated his first victory since October 2019 on the frontstretch, he was visited by a familiar face – fellow competitor and the race’s runner-up Brad Keselowski. The 2012 Cup Series champ offered instant kudos with a handshake in front of a sold-out crowd.
The gesture was one that seemed to legitimize Larson’s rehabilitation. It represented much of the mindset of the sport’s drivers’ fraternity, as evidenced by their post-race comments, while serving as a significant public display of solidarity.
Keselowski, despite coming home second after leading 27 laps at Vegas, opened up about the support he has for Larson as the driver continues his path back to NASCAR stardom. It’s a long way now from last year’s mistake — an understatement, to be sure — that cost him a job driving the No. 42 car for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I’m just really happy for him,” Keselowski told FOX Sports after the race. “I know he’s been through a lot over the last year. He’s a good kid. I’ve known him for a little while, he’s got a good family and just happy to see him bounce back.”
Keselowski went on to say in his post-race Zoom that many drivers are rooting for Larson, to some extent.
“I think everybody loves a good redemption story, and he’s fought really hard for his opportunity to come back, and he’s making the most of it,” the Team Penske driver continued. “So I’m happy for him, and I think I told him that.
“I think we’re all pulling for him.”
The most notable display of unity, though, came in victory lane, where Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ lone Black driver, went to give Larson a handshake and celebrate with him immediately after the race.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) March 8, 2021
When Larson’s slur rattled the NASCAR Twitterverse a year ago, he immediately called Wallace and left a text message five minutes after the incident. Wallace didn’t entertain a conversation with Larson until the next day, when they spoke over video chat, but the two have since talked extensively and cleared any apparent grievances.
“It meant a lot to have Bubba come to victory lane,” Larson said. “He always does a really good job of congratulating the winners. I saw him waiting to say hi or whatever to me as I ran over there, and just had a quick moment with him. He said congrats. He’s always believed in me. So that was special. Just really cool to have him come by and take time out of his post race where he could be on his way to the airport to go home.”
Even Bill Lester, a former competitor in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the last full-time Black competitor across the sport’s national series before Wallace, lent a shout of solidarity via social media.
— Bill Lester (@Bill_Lester) March 7, 2021
Now, with the road to redemption reaching a crucial step, how far can Larson go? Considering the speed of Hendrick Motorsports thus far in 2021, his ceiling might be higher than ever.
Kyle Busch, who finished third in Sunday’s race, noted Hendrick’s strong start as a whole – Larson’s teammate Byron led 102 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway one week ago en route to a win – but pointed to Larson’s talent as the driving force behind the team’s surging start to the season.
“Larson’s obviously a talented [driver] and he’s done a fantastic job in the races he’s had so far […],” said Busch, another past driver of the Hendrick No. 5. “There was no keeping up with him. Those guys have got it going on and have done a nice job. It was impressive to see and congrats on him getting a win this early in the season and for him on his return.”
Larson is showing that success is likely coming his way this season regardless of whether his fellow competitors respect him or wish him well. But for now, the drivers he’s racing door-to-door with on a weekly basis are saying and showing they’ve got his back.