Kyle Larson emerged from exile to win 1st Cup title – The North State Journal

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

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

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

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

Larson applied for his reinstatement in October after completing NASCAR-mandated sensitivity training and other voluntary courses. On October 28, 2020 – eight days after his reinstatement – Larson was hired by Hendrick to pilot his iconic No.5.

What happened during the 2021 season is what made Larson NSJ chosen as Athlete of the Year.

Larson recorded 10 wins (six more than Martin Truex Jr.) and led 2,581 laps (1,079 more than Denny Hamlin) in a dominant season that bought him back with many racing fans – well that Elliott won the title of Most Popular Driver in a fan vote. for the fourth consecutive year.

“This trip last year, getting to this point, was tough,” Larson told CNN. “But then all of the success we’ve had this year made it all rewarding and something I can’t believe. The last 18 months … lows to highs … have been crazy.

This probably wouldn’t have been possible without team owner Rick Hendrick, who tried his luck with Larson. Larson’s talent has never been in doubt – he has long been considered one of the most promising drivers in stock car racing with the talent to compete for championships.

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

Enter Rick Hendrick again.

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

Larson’s bet paid off for Hendrick on the track and on the pitch. In addition to Larson having a dominant championship season, Hendrick’s business has flourished since the partnership with the racing team. Web traffic increased 27%, vehicle sales increased 18%, and digital retail revenue increased 37%.

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

And that was all before Larson won four of the last five playoff races to mark his championship season.

A season that would not have been possible without Hendrick.

“I accepted that I will probably never be there again,” Larson said of the consequences of his dismissal and suspension. “I’m grateful that I got this second chance and that I was able to do some good things because of it.”

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