NSJ 2021 Athlete of Year: Kyle Larson climbed out of exile to win 1st Cup title

Fired and suspended after using a racial slur in an online racing event, the driver redeemed himself off the track and then on it

Kyle Larson, right, and his son Owen celebrate after winning the NASCAR Cup Series title at Phoenix. (Rick Scuteri / AP Photo)

Kyle Larson could have been a part of several of NSJ’s Year in Review honors.

Hendrick Motorsports certainly could have repeated as Team of the Year. Last year, the team won the honor when Chase Elliott captured his first Cup Series championship, and this year Hendrick broke the record for most wins by a Cup Series team in May and then saw Larson win his first title on Nov. 7 at Phoenix.

Comeback of the Year would have been appropriate for Larson as well. During NASCAR’s shutdown at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Larson was suspended by the sanctioning body and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing after using a racial slur during an iRacing virtual event.

Larson applied for reinstatement in October after finishing NASCAR-mandated sensitivity training and other voluntary classes. On Oct. 28, 2020 — eight days after he was reinstated — Larson was hired by Hendrick to pilot its iconic No. 5.

What happened over the course of the 2021 season is what made Larson NSJ’s choice as Athlete of the Year.

Larson posted a season-high 10 wins (six more than Martin Truex Jr.) and led 2,581 laps (1,079 more than Denny Hamlin) in a dominant season that redeemed him with many racing fans — though Elliott won Most Popular Driver in a fan vote for the fourth straight year.

“That journey of last year, getting to this point, was difficult,” Larson told CNN. “But then, all the success we had this year made it all rewarding and something that I can’t believe. The last 18 months … the lowest-lows to the highest-highs … have been crazy.”

It probably wouldn’t have been possible without team owner Rick Hendrick taking a chance on Larson. Larson’s talent has never been in doubt — he’s long been considered one of stock car racing’s up-and-coming drivers with the talent to compete for championships.

Larson had become a playoff contender at Ganassi, but he had won just six of his 223 Cup Series races before coming to Hendrick. Having the best equipment on the track wouldn’t be a problem at Hendrick, but landing a sponsor was going to be nearly impossible anywhere because of Larson’s transgressions.

Enter Rick Hendrick again.

Rather than trying to cobble together advertisers who were willing to stake their reputation on Larson, Hendrick — who made his money in car dealerships — slapped HendrickCars.com on the No. 5 and doubled down on Larson redeeming himself.

The gamble on Larson has paid off for Hendrick at the track and on the lot. On top of Larson putting together a dominant championship season, Hendrick’s business thrived since the partnership with the race team. Web traffic was up 27%, vehicle sales increased 18% and digital retail revenue climbed 37%.

“Kyle’s performance on the track has delivered a measurable business return for us,” Hendrick Automotive Group vice president of financial services Darryl Jackson said in July when the sponsorship was extended through 2023.

And all that was before Larson won four of the last five final playoff races to put an emphatic stamp on his championship season.

A season that wouldn’t have been possible if not for Hendrick.

“I was accepting of the fact that I probably won’t ever race in it again,” Larson said of the aftermath of his firing and suspension. “I’m thankful that I did get that second chance and I was able to do good things through it.”