It took Kyle Larson just four races to win in his return to NASCAR.
Larson won Sunday at Las Vegas in his first race with Hendrick Motorsports. Larson joined Hendrick in the offseason after he was suspended by NASCAR and fired by Chip Ganassi Racing four races into the 2020 season after he said the N-word during a virtual race broadcast on NASCAR’s website.
Larson beat Brad Keselowski to the checkered flag and Keselowski was the only driver that kept Larson from sweeping all three of the race’s stages. After climbing from his car following some celebratory donuts, Larson said the victory was “definitely special” and made sure to thank team owner Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon — who called the race in the Fox booth — for the opportunity at Hendrick.
“Thank you so much Mr. H, Jeff Gordon, everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I’ve been gifted,” Larson said.
It’s hard to argue against Larson’s usage of the word “gifted.” By getting a ride with Hendrick, Larson got a better job than the one he was fired from.
Chip Ganassi Racing has been an above-average team throughout Larson’s Cup Series tenure but never was able to consistently challenge the likes of Hendrick, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske.
Larson won six races in his time at CGR and it was impossible not to wonder how many races Larson could win with a better team. His contract with the team was up at the end of the 2020 season and Larson was set to be the most coveted free agent in NASCAR.
Then Larson said the racial slur. With real races halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic, racers turned to sim racing to have fun and keep fans entertained during the pandemic. Larson used the N-word on a feed that was heard on the race broadcast. The repercussions were swift.
Larson was suspended from CGR and then from NASCAR. As sponsors like Credit One and McDonald’s distanced themselves from him, CGR made the decision to fire Larson from the team.
The 28-year-old spent the rest of the Cup Series season racing sprint cars at dirt tracks around the country. He won a bunch of those races — over 40 of them, in fact — and showed that he was the incredibly talented driver that everyone knew he was.
But showing off that talent wasn’t what was going to get him back in the Cup Series. Larson publicly apologized for his actions and detailed the things he had done to learn and grow from his use of the slur. He said in an October interview with CBS that he knew “deep down” that he wasn’t racist. He said he had grown more in the months since he said the slur than in he had in the years before April 12.
It wasn’t hard to see how Larson was being genuine in that interview and in his public appearances since. He truly does appear to have learned from his mistake and grown from it both in his words and his charitable actions. That’s an accomplishment, especially in an era where admitting fault is seen by some as a sign of weakness.
But Larson’s journey to redemption isn’t done with his win on Sunday and it won’t be complete if he wins the next three races. Larson’s growth and comeback shouldn’t be defined by his stats in NASCAR. They should be defined by his actions and his words. He’s doing and saying the right things so far. And hopefully that continues well into the future.
Joe Gibbs Racing was the fastest team on Sunday. All four JGR cars finished in the top seven despite a slow start for Kyle Busch.
Busch ended up as the top-finishing JGR driver. He was third after in-race adjustments found him some speed late in the race. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. ran up front for most of the day and they finished fourth and sixth, respectively. Daytona road course winner Christopher Bell was seventh.
While JGR was good, Stewart-Haas Racing was flat-out bad. It wasn’t surprising that Kevin Harvick was the top-finishing driver on the team. But he finished 20th.
Harvick got some left-front fender damage on an early restart. He quickly fell through the pack and never really made that track position back up throughout the race. Every other SHR driver didn’t sniff the front of the field outside of green-flag pit stop cycles.
Chase Briscoe was 21st and Cole Custer finished 25th. Aric Almirola finished in 38th and last after a part broke and he slammed into the wall.
The first four races of the season have been brutal for Almirola. He’s finished 30th or worse in three of the first four races and is 26th in the points standings.
- Kyle Larson
- Brad Keselowski
- Kyle Busch
- Denny Hamlin
- Ryan Blaney
- Martin Truex Jr.
- Christopher Bell
- William Byron
- Joey Logano
- Erik Jones
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
- Austin Dillon
- Chase Elliott
- Chris Buescher
- Ryan Preece
- Matt DiBenedetto
- Michael McDowell
- Ryan Newman
- Kurt Busch
- Kevin Harvick
- Chase Briscoe
- Tyler Reddick
- Ross Chastain
- Anthony Alfredo
- Cole Custer
- Daniel Suarez
- Alex Bowman
- Bubba Wallace
- Justin Haley
- BJ McLeod
- Garrett Smithley
- Cody Ware
- Quin Houff
- Joey Gase
- Josh Bilicki
- Timmy Hill
- Corey LaJoie
- Aric Almirola