Kyle Larson has never been better prepared to race at NASCAR’s top level.
After seven full seasons in Cup, the 28-year-old racer was suspended last April for using a racial slur during an iRacing event. He hasn’t competed in a stock car since.
Rather than sit on the sidelines, Larson competed—and won—in a variety of racing disciplines, including midgets, sprint cars and dirt late models. Consequently, his confidence level is at an all-time high embarking on his next NASCAR challenge—behind the wheel of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“With the success I had in the dirt stuff last year, winning 46 times, I’d like to be able to come back to NASCAR, being with an amazing organization that just won the championship, go out there and be strong and win a lot of races, too,” Larson said. “I had a 50 percent win percentage last year.
“Obviously, I know that’s probably impossible to ever happen in NASCAR. But I’d like to be competitive each week, win a lot of races and hopefully contend for the championship.
“Also, I think I do have a lot to prove off the race track, showing people who I really am and showing people the good person that I know am. Yeah, I think there is definitely a lot I need to prove on and off the race track, and I’m looking forward to getting that started here in a few days.”
Off the track, Larson is intent on rehabilitating his reputation. After multiple mea culpas and sensitivity training, Larson has taken the necessary steps to atone for his mistake and focus on his future. His next move is the creation of a foundation to further diversity awareness in motorsports.
“I want it to be something that’s personal to me, and obviously everything I went through last year is very personal to me,” Larson said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to do that – I’ve never had my own foundation. I’ve been to a lot of other events and things like that throughout my career in NASCAR.
“I’ll take bits and pieces from everyone that I’ve been to and try to make an impact.”
Larson has never had an issue winning over the dirt fans. His success last season likely contributed to increasing that base. Despite his proficiency on dirt, Larson’s previous NASCAR run was unremarkable. In 223 starts, Larson visited Victory Lane just six times.
But prior to the pandemic and his suspension from NASCAR, Larson enjoyed a career-best average finish of 11th. In four starts he scored one top-five result at Phoenix and top 10s at both Daytona and Las Vegas.
“Dirt racing has always been something I can go back to whenever I’ve had a rough stretch of things in NASCAR and kind of turn my confidence around and get my attitude going in the right direction,” Larson said. “That’s kind of what this past year of getting back to racing sprint cars and midgets, and even the late model stuff, kind of helped me do. And I’ve had my best season ever in a race car, so whenever you’re winning, that’s always helping things.
“I didn’t know if I’d have the opportunity to race in NASCAR, but I was trying to do everything I could on and off the race track throughout last year to try and get that opportunity. I’m thankful that Mr. Hendrick saw the work I was putting in and picked up the phone to get me hired on at their race team. It was a tough year, for sure, but I grew as a person, grew as a race car driver.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick believes Larson will receive a warm reception when he returns to the stock car ranks.
“Most people know how hard he has worked to make things right, or to say he is sorry, or to take ownership,” Hendrick said. “The body of work he has done has been amazing and we announced some sponsors for him last week. And one of the sponsors said they were covered up in emails and calls where they were excited they were sponsoring him. And we have other interests. So, fans love him, he drives the wheels off the cars, whether it's Sprint Cars or Midgets.
“He is a racer, and from a personal relationship with him, he is excited about what he is doing off the track. Whether it’s his foundation, working with the Urban Youth Racing School—which he was working with them before anything happened. I have seen a different kid, well not a kid, but his life has changed and he is determined to win.
“If you make a mistake and you not just own it, but you dedicate your career to be a role model for other people who have made a mistake; or people that haven’t thought about it into the depth that he has now. I feel like he is going to be very popular and we are already getting calls on him. I think the proof is in what he has done, and people can see that.”
Larson continues to work out with former racer turned trainer Josh Wise to prepare for the longer stints of stock car racing. He has spent quality time with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who attended some of Larson’s dirt races in the offseason, and participated in team-building exercises. While it might take him a few practice sessions to reacquaint himself to stock cars, Larson should be up to speed in no time.
“The biggest adjustment is getting the cockpit right,” Larson said. “Even though we have the measurements and stuff from when I was in the No. 42 car, now things don’t maybe feel the same because I’ve been out of a car so long and my body has kind of gotten accustomed to sitting upright in a sprint car or midget.
“So, getting in the cockpit and trying to remember—OK the shifter feels normal there; my pedal distance feels right or it doesn’t; the throttle and brake geometry and stuff like that I think has probably been the toughest part to remember if that’s comfortable or not.”
Hendrick Motorsports is enjoying a resurgence of sorts coming off of its 13th Cup championship and three of the four drivers notching wins last season. No longer limited by middle-of-the-road equipment, Larson has no excuses as to why he can’t contend on a weekly basis with this new ride.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity that Mr. H has given me. It’s pretty unbelievable and I’m very thankful. I hope to do a good job for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and all my sponsors—just do a good job on and off the track to really take advantage of this second chance that I may not have deserved.”