The Larson Era has Begun
By Tyler Head
In April of 2020, Kyle Larson’s NASCAR Cup Series career was completely up in the air after uttering a racial slur on an iRacing event being live-streamed on YouTube. As a result, and rightfully so, Larson was fired from Chip Ganassi Racing and suspended by NASCAR. He was left to create his own path if he ever wanted to get back to Cup. He did exactly that. Not only did he complete NASCAR’s mandatory sensitivity training, he also educated himself and took the time to meet with and experience the lives of those in the African-American community.
Once he was reinstated by NASCAR’s sanctioning body, he was given the opportunity to join Hendrick Motorsports to replace the retiring Jimmie Johnson. Larson, who had carved out six wins in as many seasons with Ganassi, was finally going to get the chance to race in the best equipment in the garage. Winning was not only a goal, but an expectation for the superbly talented Larson, who has been touted by many as this generation’s Jeff Gordon.
He started the season by winning early at Las Vegas and what followed was one of the most impressive single seasons in NASCAR’s modern era. Through 35 races he won nine times, collected 19 top 5s and 25 top 10s all while leading 2,474 laps (a modern record.) He claimed victory in some of NASCAR’s most prestigious races including the Coca-Cola 600 and the Bristol Night Race. He capped off the first 26 races by winning the regular season championship and entered the playoffs as the number one seed.
Outside of a crash at Talladega, the Playoffs went about as perfect as they could go for the 5 team as they won four of the first 9 playoff races and more importantly earned a spot to race for the title at Phoenix.
Larson won the pole on Saturday and had to finish higher than Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr. in order to win the championship.
After leading the first lap, Larson was passed by him teammate Elliott. When an early caution flew for Bubba Wallace crashing, crew chief Cliff Daniels made a bold decision by bringing Larson in to the pits while the other title contenders stayed out. Larson restarted at nearly the end of the field and quickly began slicing his way forward once the race resumed. Another caution soon after would bring everybody else into the pits while the 5 car opted to stay out and regain the lead.
As the race played out, it was clear the Hendrick cars had good short run speed and the Gibbs cars of Hamlin and Truex came on strong in the long run. Despite this, Larson and Elliott held serve out front for most of the race, but it almost seemed like their title hopes went up in smoke when the caution flew on lap 249 for Anthony Alfredo hitting the wall. Truex had just pulled into the pits as the caution came out and was able to cycle to the lead because he never lost a lap due to the yellow. Hamlin joined him up front on the restart and it seemed as though JGR duo would decide the championship amongst themselves as they drove away for the 5 and 9. The Hendrick boys needed another yellow in order to get back into the mix. They got exactly that.
David Starr spit debris on the track with 30 to go and everyone dove for the pits once more. The title contenders ran first through fourth with Larson being the last of them. His Hendrickcars.com pit crew needed to be perfect to get him back up front. They proceeded to bust out an 11.8 second stop (their fastest of the season) and Larson restarted first with 24 to go.
It was far from a stress free drive for Larson as Truex had gotten adjustments in his stop to help his car on the final run. He shadowed the 5 for several laps and stayed within striking distance even up until the last lap, but it wasn’t enough for Truex to get the job done.
574 days after what seemed like the moment his NASCAR career ended, Kyle Larson crossed the finish line at Phoenix Raceway to win his first career NASCAR Cup Series championship. The tears in his eyes told a story of both humbleness and appreciation for what he had accomplished. The admiration from his fellow competitors showed how much respect he had earned from the entire garage. And the cheers from the fans showed a realization that they were witnessing greatness before them.
The story of Kyle Larson’s NASCAR career has plenty of chapters that are yet to be written, but one thing is for sure. The Larson era is only beginning.