Kyle Larson has become something of a phenomenon. But then, you probably already knew that.
Unquestionably, he’s the hottest driver in NASCAR Cup racing this season. He just won his third consecutive race of the year at Nashville – on the heels of victories at Charlotte and Sonoma – and has compiled four wins in 17 races to go along with 10 top-five finishes and 12 among the top 10. He’s second in the point standings.
Those are impressive season credentials, but Larson’s portfolio is enhanced by the fact he can – and does – win in any car and on any circuit he chooses.
If I chose to catalog the number of races Larson has won and where he won them, we would be here all night. Suffice to say his victories have come on the Xfinity, Camping World Trucks, World of Outlaws, K&N Pro West, K&N Pro East circuits – in addition to the 24 Hours of Daytona and others.
He’s done it all since 2012, when he was a tender 20 years old.
Race fans have noticed. Social media is filled with messages of praise and recognition. Some have proclaimed Larson the best driver of his generation and perhaps one of the best in NASCAR history.
It’s a little early for that last one. But Larson has plenty of time to make it so.
Larson’s full-time Cup career began with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. His first victory came in the summer of 2016 at Michigan. He won five more times before 2021 and has won 10 times in his career.
That career was nearly derailed in April of 2020.
In a widely publicized incident – which received media attention far beyond the motorsports realm – Larson was suspended by both his team and NASCAR for using a racial slur.
Larson used the word amidst his participation in an iRacing event – which, as I understand, is “virtual” competition that came to the front amid the Covid-19 lockdowns. Larson thought he had lost communication.
Larson lost support of multiple corporations, including McDonald’s, Credit One Bank and Chevrolet. The day after CGR enforced the suspension, it fired him. Matt Kenseth took over for the remainder of the season.
Additionally, NASCAR ruled that Larson must complete sensitivity training before he would be allowed to race again.
Think about it for a moment. Here’s a rising star in racing who loses his opportunity to compete, his financial backers, his job and who must submit to sensitivity training – an embarrassment – with no guarantee he will ever race again.
It makes for a very grim future.
There was a time in NASCAR that if Larson used that slur no one would have cared. It was spoken routinely in sport born in the South and dominated by whites, most of whom hailed from small, rural towns.
As an aside, the fact that Wendell Scott established a career in NASCAR during this time speaks volumes about what he endured to do so.
When it comes to diversity, NASCAR has lagged. Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA, for example, have long outstripped the sanctioning body when it comes a racial mix of competitors.
That’s not entirely NASCAR’s fault – not by any means. But you can be assured it knows the problem and had done much to reverse it over the last several years. And it has made great strides.
Additionally, we live in a racially charged era beset by challenge, distrust and hard opinions and actions. That’s not news to you.
But over the years all of this has bought keen attention toward the law, rights and human dignity. That’s one reason the slur Larson used is considered reprehensible and when used in an open setting, repercussions follow.
Larson knew that. After the penalties were administered, he said he had no excuse for what he said and apologized to everyone, especially members of the African American community.
Larson also said he wasn’t raised that way.
At the time, I had to believe him. Larson’s mother is Japanese. At the outbreak of World War II, his grandparents endured the clearly prejudicial act of being taken from their home and interred, along with so many other Japanese Americans, in a camp.
With such family heritage, I seriously doubt Larson knew nothing about racial slurs. He couldn’t have been raised without knowing the pain they can cause.
But he can make a mistake – and he did.
Not only did he make up for it through sensitivity training, but he did also more. Multiple reports revealed he participated in classes to learn about the African American community and visited Minnesota shortly after George Floyd was killed.
He also said many members of the NASCAR community kept in touch with him during his rehabilitation, which provided him hope his career could be saved.
In October 2020 NASCAR re-instated Larson, saying he could return to racing effective Jan. 1, 2021.
Later in October Hendrick Motorsports – an organization with a proven eye for talent – announced that Larson would join the team’s roster of drivers in 2021.
Incidentally, Hendrick drivers have won nearly half of the races this year.
And Larson paves the way.
Nice comeback, I’d say, for a driver who might well have thought his career was over because he said the wrong thing at the wrong time.