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A prolific winner in dirt-track racing, Kyle Larson enjoyed a breakout season in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021, posting a series-best 10 victories and winning his first championship in NASCAR’s premier division.
Larson’s career got a much-needed jump start when he was hired by Hendrick Motorsports after serving a suspension in 2020 for using a racial slur in a non-NASCAR-related public online racing competition.
Larson rewarded team owner Rick Hendrick with a magnificent, title-winning performance in the No. 5 Chevrolet.
From his earliest days in racing, Kyle Larson established a reputation as a fearless driver with elite talent. His versatility is reminiscent of three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart, who, like Larson, could adapt to all styles of racing vehicles.
In 2011, Larson won the Belleville Midget Nationals on dirt. A year later, he launched his stock car racing career by winning the championship in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East.
Larson signed a long-term contract with Chip Ganassi Racing and made his Cup debut in the fall race at Charlotte in 2013. It took 99 starts, however, for Larson to pick up his first victory, which he did at Michigan International Speedway in 2016.
In 2017, Larson won four times, sweeping both Michigan races, winning at the two-mile Auto Club Speedway in California and picking up his first short-track victory at Richmond Raceway.
But 2018 and 2019 were lean years for Larson, who won only once in that span. Then came the year that changed the arc of Larson’s career.
Four races into the 2020 season, NASCAR joined all other major sports in shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic. During the 10-week hiatus, many drivers filled their time with virtual online racing.
Larson was no exception. But a mistake he made during one of the public competitions cost him dearly. Larson used a racial slur during one of the races, and it quickly went viral.
It was a thoughtless comment from a driver who had come up through NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity program because of his Japanese heritage and who has worked closely with the Urban Youth Racing School Foundation in Philadelphia.
NASCAR suspended Larson indefinitely, and Ganassi severed ties with the driver. Larson didn’t race in any NASCAR series for the remainder of 2020, but he won 46 of the 96 dirt races he entered in a variety of disciplines—from Sprint Cars to Midgets to Silver Crown Cars to Dirt Late Models.
Having completed sensitivity training, Larson regained his NASCAR eligibility for 2021, and Hendrick hired him to drive the no. 5 Camaro. He fashioned two streaks of three straight wins en route to a personal-best 10 victories in 36 starts.
Larson benefited from a late caution and a lightning-fast pit stop in the championship race to win the event and the series title.
In 2022, Larson won three times—at Auto Club, Watkins Glen and Homestead-Miami—and finished seventh in the final standings.
Award-winning motorsports writer Reid Spencer has served as lead writer for the NASCAR Wire Service for 16 years, having also spent a four-year stint as NASCAR columnist and beat writer for Sporting News. He is currently serving as president of the National Motorsports Press Association. Email: [email protected]More info on Reid Spencer
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