In his seventh full season on the NASCAR Cup circuit, Kyle Larson is far from an overnight success.
But it wasn’t until he was aligned with Hendrick Motorsports that Larson revealed his full potential behind the wheel of a stock car.
Until now, Larson has never even been a contender for a championship in NASCAR—or any other national series. Yet after winning the regular-season title and leading the Cup tour with five wins, the 29-year-old racer is considered the favorite entering the 2021 Playoffs.
“Larson obviously is a top talent,” said two-time Cup champion Kyle Busch. “We’ve all known that for a long time. He’s now in top equipment, so he has the full potential there. It definitely happened a lot faster than anybody expected, as far as just him going out there and run up front and win races. I think they won Vegas—that was their first one.
“He’s been right there all season long and been competitive and fast. He probably could have had a few more wins. I think we stole one from him at Kansas. They lost one on the last corner of the last lap at Pocono. So things could have looked a hell of a lot worse for the rest of us if he had a few more wins under his belt with the Playoff points. But it is what it is.”
Despite late-race mistakes at Kansas, Pocono and the Daytona Road Course, Larson has recorded a career-high five wins in a season. His 1,566 laps led is also a personal best compared with the 1,352 laps led after 36 races in 2017.
And there are still 10 races remaining to decide the title.
“We all know he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with and it’s just going to be a matter of who are going to be the other three that join him in the final four,” Busch added. “Look, the wheels could fall off of it at any time. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Look at the 2008 Playoffs. There was another year when I got wrecked at Talladega and that took us out of the championship right there.
“So anything can happen. But those guys certainly have to be weighing their options and trying to limit their mistakes.”
Larson has been a quick study under the direction of Cliff Daniels—a graduate from the Chad Knaus school of crew chiefs. Daniel’s delivery and cadence over the radio is eerily similar to the seven-time champion’s. As a former driver, Daniels innately tunes into Larson’s needs behind the wheel—and responds accordingly, offering necessary information without trivial banter.
And Larson has thrived in that environment.
Martin Truex Jr. can relate to Larson’s success. After floundering for eight seasons in Cup and scoring just two wins in 297 starts, Truex found a rebirth of sorts with Cole Pearn at Furniture Row Racing. After a challenging transition from the now-defunct Michael Waltrip Racing entering 2014, Truex went on to win 24 races with Pearn over the next five seasons. He won the 2017 title and advanced to the Championship 4 Round the following two years finishing second in both 2018 and 2019.
If winning five races and the regular-season championship wasn’t enough of a boost to vault Larson to the title, Truex believes having the strength of the No. 5 Hendrick team behind him will be game-changer.
“The biggest thing is it helps you understand that you don’t have to do it alone,” Truex said. ”All the pressure’s not on you. All the weight of the world’s not on your shoulders, it’s on the team’s, collectively. For instance, when I was at MWR, we made the Playoffs one year, then obviously the next year, we had some issues there. In those moments, when you’re not consistently winning races or in the position to, you feel like it’s all on you. When you have a bad week, the whole team is looking at you like, ‘What did you do? How did this happen?’ Like it’s your fault.
“I just feel like the more you have success, the more consistently you have success, the more comfortable you are of not feeling the burden of carrying the whole team on your shoulders and realizing that it’s something that you all do together. I think that’s the confidence thing. Kind of proving to yourself that you can hold up your end of the deal consistently and if something happens, you get the benefit of the doubt.”
Larson has been given free rein to race wherever and whenever he wants since joining Hendrick. While some might find running over 100 races a year distracting to the end game--winning a NASCAR championship—Larson has proven the continual racing keeps him sharp for Sunday competition, so much so, that more Cup drivers are racing outside of the NASCAR ranks than ever before.
With his success throughout the week, Larson is brimming with confidence when he returns to the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet on the weekends—and he has the full support of his team around him.
“It’s a good feeling to feel that and it’s fun to go racing that way, I can tell you that,” Truex said.
“Honestly, it makes it more fun to race every weekend but it also, if you have a bad week, it’s a lot easier to overcome it in that situation because you’re not in a bad place and mentally you’re not going to beat yourself up before you even show up.
“All around, it’s hard to explain just how much it helps to have success, to have a good season going and be consistent and have the confidence in each other as a group. That’s really what this stuff is all about.”