Kyle Larson just might be experiencing one of the greatest, and quickest, rebounds in sports history.
A year ago, he was in some sort of dirt-track exile, banished from the racing penthouse of the NASCAR Cup Series for six months for uttering a racial slur during a virtual race in the early stages of the pandemic. That slur, caught on a live-streamed event, and shared all over the world on social media in a matter of minutes, cost Larson a ride at Chip Ganassi Racing and one of the most recognizable sponsors on the planet in McDonald’s.
Larson was reinstated on Oct. 19 of last year, but that was too late for any return to the Cup Series.
Now, on the eve of the NASCAR Cup Playoffs, Larson is the series’ regular-season champion and on top of his game with team owner Rick Hendrick. He enters this Sunday’s Cook Out Southern 500 and Playoff opener as the top seed and with five wins this season.
Check that. That’s five wins in the Cup Series.
All told, Larson. driver of the No. 5 Valvoline Instant Oil Change Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, says his current count is 24 wins this year, which includes several wins on the short tracks. The five Cup wins is just one win shy of the total Larson put up in his first seven full seasons in Cup, combined.
It’s almost as if the events of 2020 never happened.
“I feel like I’m a much more mature person on and off the racetrack, behind the wheel, not behind the wheel,” Larson said during a media availability via Zoom on Tuesday. “I think through all the experience of growing up made me ultimately just better all around.”
And it’s not like Larson came out of he exile rusty. After all, he wasn’t just sitting around playing video games during his time away from the big stage.
“Speaking of just racing, I think getting to race as much as I did last year and contend—I raced 96 times, something like that, and won 46,” Larson said. “Probably was in position to chase a win in 80 races or more. I think putting yourself in position like that, it makes me a much mentally stronger driver these days, much more experienced driver.
“Yeah, it’s definitely been a crazy couple years, but thankful that I’m in the opportunity I’m in now.”
Larson this year, instead or racing for Ganassi and a team that sported Target sponsorship for more than a quarter of a century, is now the one with the target on his back. If that target is weighing on the 29-year-old racer, he’s not letting it show.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Larson said. “I mean, it means you’re in a fast race car and you’re doing a good job, so it’s good. I mean, it’s not like everybody’s gunning for you and you have a target on your back or anything like that. It’s just a cool spot to be in.
“It’s been a lot of hard work to get to this point. Now we’ve got a great opportunity to go chase a championship. We’ve been doing a great job doing what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue that and execute well. Hopefully it will all kind of take care of itself.”
In addition to wins at Las Vegas, Charlotte, Sonoma, Nashville and Watkins Glen, Larson has five runner-up finishes in what has proven to be a dominate season where anything less than a championship will likely be a disappointment.
“I hope we haven’t peaked yet,” Larson said. “We won a race a few weeks ago (Watkins Glen on Aug. 8). Yeah, I think we’re still capable of winning more races throughout the rest of the year and continuing to get better. I think all the race teams get better each and every week. We’re one of those teams that’s done that, too.
“It’s hard to predict. It’s been fun. We’ve been able to win a lot of races. Even when we weren’t winning, we were still up front. That’s what you’ve got to do here in these next 10 weeks.”
NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Field
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