By Ethan Miller ‘23
At this time last year, Kyle Larson didn’t know where he would be racing in 2021. Heck, he didn’t even know if he’d have a ride at all. But after this season, and Sunday’s race, his future in NASCAR is secure for as long as he wants it.
Last April, while the whole world was in lockdown due to COVID-19, many NASCAR drivers turned to sim racing to pass the time, maintain their skills, and provide fans with much-needed entertainment. Larson, while competing in an online race, uttered a racial slur that changed his career and rocked the NASCAR world. Within days, all of his sponsors had dropped him and team owner Chip Ganassi made the tough decision to release Larson for the remainder of the season. When the NASCAR Cup Series season resumed in May, it was without Larson driving in the series.
Larson watched the remainder of the NASCAR season from his couch, but he wasn’t devoid of racing. Always an immense talent in racing, with an ability to win in nearly every discipline of race car that he jumped into, Kyle turned to dirt track racing. He won over half his races on clay over the course of the summer, with 42 wins, including trophy case wins at the Chili Bowl and the King’s Royal (FloRacing). During this span, Larson worked his way through NASCAR Sensitivity Training and was committed to learning and making up for what he said in the spring.
All of this led to him being reinstated by NASCAR in the winter, clearing him to race in the 2021 season. Multiple teams came calling, with the biggest being Hendrick Motorsports. Fresh off a championship in 2020 with Chase Elliott, and revered as one of the most successful owners in NASCAR history, Rick Hendrick pursued Larson heavily – and got him. Larson signed with Hendrick to drive the no. 5 Chevrolet Camaro on October 28, 2020 for 2 years, with sponsorship provided by Hendrick’s own car sales company, HendrickCars.com. This summer, they extended the deal through 2023.
Larson’s 2021 season started off quickly, as he got his first win of the year at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in just the fourth race of the season. He then went nearly three months without a win, although he was still very fast in that stretch, finishing second 4 times in the span of 11 races between wins. He broke back through for win #2 in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
From there, his season took off, as he won the next 2 races at Sonoma and Nashville to stretch the streak to 3 wins in a row and 4 on the season. In the next race at Pocono Raceway, he came one corner away from being the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win 4 races in a row. Leading into the last corner of the last lap, Larson blew a tire and crashed into the wall, missing out on the win. Not to be deterred, he continued his dominance throughout the summer, adding a win at Watkins Glen, to win the regular season championship and entered the playoffs with 5 wins.
In the playoffs, Larson cruised through the first 2 rounds, adding wins at Bristol and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval to run his total to 7. In the penultimate round, he won the first 2 races to lock himself into the championship for the first time in his career. For those keeping track at home, that’s 9 wins now for the driver of the no.5 car.
In the championship race at Phoenix, Larson battled teammate and reigning champion Chase Elliott, 2017 Cup Series champion Martin Truex, Jr., and 46-time Cup Series winner (but winless in titles) Denny Hamlin. All 4 drivers led at one point of the 312 lap race at Phoenix Raceway, and as the laps wound down, no driver had an advantage over the others. After a restart with about 50 laps to go, Truex and Hamlin surged ahead and appeared to be in control. After a dominant season, it seemed Larson would come up short in the most important race, as the highest finisher of the 4 drivers would be crowned champion. However, with a little over 20 to go, the caution flag flew once more, and the whole field came down pit road for tires and fuel. Larson’s pit crew was perfect, with their second-fastest pit stop of the season, and he exited pit road with the lead. When the race restarted, he jumped out to the lead and never looked back, winning his 10th race of the season and the championship.
Larson’s first career championship caps off one of the greatest single-season performances of NASCAR’s modern era- 10 wins, 20 top 5s, and 26 top 10s. He led 2581 laps on the year, the most ever in a 36 race season. With 10 wins, Larson matched a feat that hadn’t been achieved since former Hendrick great Jimmie Johnson won 10 in 2007. It’s Hendrick’s 14th title as a team owner, further cementing him as one of the greatest owners and teams of all time.
Sunday’s race was the final race for NASCAR’s Generation 6 car, which debuted in 2013. Gone are 5 lug nut pit stops, steel bodies, and 4-gear transmissions, in favor of 1 lug nut, composite bodies, and sequential gearboxes. The Gen 7 car will debut in the Busch Clash at the L.A. Coliseum on February 6th, 2022, with the first points race being at the Daytona 500 on February 20th, 2022.