Las Vegas win a reminder of Larson's NASCAR promise
OPINION: One race win will not stop people from bringing up Kyle Larson’s past NASCAR suspension, but it does point the conversation in another more racing-related direction.
The 28 year-old was fired from his Chip Ganassi Racing Cup Series ride last April for using a racial slur during the broadcast of an iRacing event and was also indefinitely suspended by NASCAR at the time.
He was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to drive its #5 Chevrolet last October and was cleared to return to NASCAR racing activities beginning on 1 January.
In the past year, Larson has undertaken several initiatives to help turn his experience into something positive, both for those who he offended and for himself.
But Rick Hendrick’s decision to hire Larson, which even required his own companies to sponsor the ride, did come with some risk on the racing side.
Larson was an obviously talented driver, but he seemed to have a lot of unfulfilled promise, earning six wins in just over six full-time seasons in the Cup Series.
Race winner Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro
Photo by: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Motorsport Images
His strong start to the 2021 season and his dominant win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday, in just his fourth start at HMS, has added validation to Hendrick’s bet that much of Larson’s best days in NASCAR are still ahead of him.
“I’d hoped that we could start this strong this early in the year, but I just didn’t know,” Larson said.
“So, yeah, I did kind of think there would be a moment of taking time to gel with my team, or just having them understand my driving style and stuff like that.
“But you know, they’ve obviously done their homework on me throughout the year or throughout the off-season.
"Just in the short amount of time, I mean, us being off last weekend at Homestead was a good data point to learn from that, then put what they learned into the cars going forward.
“Without practice I feel like I’ve been studying and working way harder than I ever have. I think it’s all paying off.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional obstacles for a driver like Larson transitioning from one top-tier organisation to another.
NASCAR does not have off-season testing and since the start of the pandemic nearly all race weekends have been conducted without any practice or even qualifying sessions.
The ability to acclimatise to a new team, new crew members and new cars mostly comes from meetings and simulation work.
Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, said after connecting with Larson over the winter, he felt the two would find a path forward to become a winning team.
“Just with the schedule, race format, there’s no practice, there’s no qualifying. We don’t have a big opportunity to go build our notebook together,” Daniels said. “You have to be right when you unload for the race.
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet Camaro NationsGuard
Photo by: Rusty Jarrett / NKP / Motorsport Images
“We knew it was going to take a lot of prep work to get here. We’ve done that every week. Kyle is in the shop three days a week just poring through notes with us, looking at video, looking at data.
“Our guys have done a nice job to help get him prepared, and likewise he’s done a nice job of just giving us sensations he needs to feel, things he's felt in the past and how he would like the car to respond in certain situations.”
As the season continues, Larson now knows he will have the opportunity to compete for the series championship.
He also knows he will continually be reminded of his suspension last season.
But both on the track and off, Larson has already started to change the conversation.