Hitting .300 may be enough to get you into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame these days, and that's just in pitcher vs. batter matchups.
What Kyle Larson accomplished during his exile from NASCAR racing in 2020 made a .300 average seem mundane.
Larson's victory in Saturday night's Carolina Midget Showdown at Millbridge Speedway in Mooresville, N.C., was his 46th of the year on dirt. It gave Larson a .500 batting average in a year that started with a victory in New Zealand and continued with his long-awaited win in the Chili Bowl Nationals, where he finished ahead of roughly 350 other competitors. Driving four different classes of race cars--from midgets to winged sprint cars to Silver Crown cars to dirt late models--the 28-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif., prevailed against world-class competition in half the races he entered.
That Larson triumphed over the course of a season marred by what could have been a career-ending faux pas is a testament to his talent and resolve. After the use of a racial slur during an iRacing session in April resulted in the loss of sponsors and his seat at Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson turned to the one place he’s always felt at home—dirt track racing.
The decision paid off. Larson credits the frequency of racing combined with the dedication of his support staff for his stunning run.
“There are a lot of things that add up to contribute to a successful season—being around really good people—crew chiefs and car owners—that’s probably the biggest thing, and then me getting to do it full-time this year and race a little over 90 races allowed me to stay active and comfortable in dirt cars," said Larson who earned reinstatement from NASCAR and will drive the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2021.
“Being able to focus on just that really helped a lot. It helped me to stay in a rhythm and Paul (Silva, crew chief) and I were able to race a lot. We were able to get our car really good throughout the year, and that helps with winning. When you have a good car, you can qualify towards the front, and that sets your night up.”
In the midst of dark times during the coronavirus pandemic, Larson shone brightly on tracks from coast-to-coast—and many in between. Even as a part-timer, Larson was the top winner on the World of Outlaws tour with 12 victories.
Brad Sweet, two-time WoO champion and Larson’s brother-in-law, had a front-row seat for the action.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, but obviously I’ve heard stories,” Sweet said. “I’ve witnessed Donny Schatz win 31 Outlaw races in a season—which is pretty incredible. Heard about Steve Kinser win in the 40s race and Doug Wolfgang won, but I didn’t witness it.
“If you ask me, ‘Am I surprised that Kyle won that many races?’ Absolutely not. I’ve always felt he was an incredible talent, especially on dirt where he can really showcase his diversity, his ability and everything he has in his arsenal. He can jump in any car with different crew chiefs, different setups and he just somehow figures it out. He’s an unbelievable talent.”
"Diverse" just scratches the surface when it comes to Yung Money’s range of versatility on dirt.
“It was fun to watch him jump in the different cars and go win midget races, champ car races and then a late model race,” Sweet added. “We knew on the winged sprint side—obviously Paul Silva is a great mechanic with a great car. They had a great thing going and really got rolling mid-summer but then he would jump in a one-off Silver Crown car and win from dead last at Indy or Springfield (Ill.) in a Champ Car. Then he goes to (Indiana) Midget Week and wins four out of six in Chad Boat’s car then gets in a Late Model—in his first-ever race--and wins at Port Royal (Penn.).
“Just some of that stuff is incredible. A lot of people who might be on the outside maybe won’t understand how incredibly hard all that is, just because there are guys putting in so much time into that one discipline—and they’re really good at what they do. It just shows how talented he really is, that he’s able to adapt to these different cars and be uncomfortable but still be really fast. That was fun to watch, but I’m glad he’s going back to NASCAR.”
Larson became just the 15th driver to win in a USAC Champ Car at all three Midwest dirt miles—DuQuoin, Indiana State Fairgrounds and Illinois State Fairgrounds—with his Bettenhausen 100 win at Springfield. He added his name to a list that includes A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Pancho Carter. Larson and USAC Triple Crown winner JJ Yeley are the only two current NASCAR drivers to pull off the feat.
En route to his Indiana Midget Week title, Larson tied the late Bryan Clauson as the winningest IMW driver with nine victories. Dating back to his remarkable run in November 2019—where he swept the three California midget races—Larson finished first or second in 10 straight USAC midget starts.
Despite Larson’s tremendous success on dirt, there were times he questioned whether there would be a second chance on NASCAR’s top tour.
“Definitely, up until the point I started having conversations with Rick (Hendrick) and Jeff (Gordon), I didn’t think I’d get another shot,” Larson said. “And I’d accepted that because of the magnitude of my mistake.
“I’m just very thankful and ready for that second chance and will do everything to take advantage of that opportunity.”
When February rolls around, Larson will shift his focus to stock cars. While he annihilated the competition on dirt tracks across America, Larson has yet to blossom behind the wheel of a stock car. Sure, there have been glimmers of promise. In 223 Cup starts, Larson has six wins, 56 top fives and 101 top 10s. Perhaps more impressive are his 22 second-place finishes.
Yet once he straps into the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Larson will have no excuses. He must find a way to convert those runner-up results into wins.
“Part of me thinks it could be really good because I’ve raced way more than anyone else this year,” Larson said. “But I also haven’t been in a stock car for almost nearly a year. Coming up to the Daytona 500 and especially now the way schedules are—no practice and things like that—being with a new team, there could be some growing pains from that.
“But I raced (in Cup) long enough and the cars haven’t changed from when I ran that I don’t think it should take me that long to adapt. I feel I do a really good job adapting to things and new situations maybe quicker than most just based on my background of driving so many different types of cars.
“I’m just really excited and ready to get going. Trying to do as much simulator stuff and just hanging out at the shop in the off-season to make sure I’m best prepared for February.”
Over the last two years, Larson developed a relationship with teammate Alex Bowman. Although both share an open-wheel background, they’ve become closer by training under the direction of Josh Wise. Recently, Larson has found a common bound with Chase Elliott, who got his baptism in dirt competition at Millbridge, where the reigning NASCAR Cup champion finished third and fourth in the two features.
“I haven’t spent a lot of time around Chase or William (Byron),” Larson said. “Getting to have Chase in an atmosphere that I’m comfortable with and around a lot of my friends and me trying to help him or advise him with driving a midget, I think that’s really going to help build a relationship going into the season and help build a friendship, too. Getting to be around him a couple of days at Millbridge was really good. He did an awesome job.
“Obviously, I’ve always had a lot of respect for him as a driver, but after seeing how quickly he adapted to something that’s way different than what he’s used to doing was great to see. It made me a bigger fan than I already was. I’m excited to see what he does at Chili Bowl and really excited to get to work with him and kind of see how he approaches a race weekend and a race and try to learn as much off of him as I can.”
While Larson continues to build bonds with his teammates—and leans on Gordon for guidance as well—he’s hoping to rekindle a relationship with the NASCAR fanbase. Entering the 2021 season, Larson is still unsure what the response might be.
“I’m sure there are a lot of race fans that were able to see the success I had this year—and they were the fans I had previously in Cup,” Larson said. “I’m sure they’ll be excited to see me back. But there is probably another group of fans that remain skeptical of me—which I totally get.
“I look forward to trying to show people who I really am and that I made a mistake, and I’m going to do my best on and off of the race track to try and prove to people who I really am. I won’t know how they’ll react until I get racing, but I look forward to just being me.”