Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

With newfound perspective, Kyle Larson returns to NASCAR ‘content with where I’m at in my life’

As Kyle Larson was growing up in Elk Grove, California, his weekends were consumed at local race tracks honing his craft behind the wheel, working hard for opportunities to advance.

Racing was a full-family weekend activity. Larson’s natural talent was obvious from the beginning and the future always looked bright. Winning seemed to come easily.

When Larson was just 19 years old, he was given a crucial opportunity as a NASCAR Drive for Diversity competitor to be a developmental driver for Chip Ganassi Racing. It was the ultimate young star grab for Ganassi and the ultimate course to big-time success for Larson, who in 2013 at age 21 was picked to drive the No. 42 CGR Chevrolet in the NASCAR Cup Series – a car most recently driven by international racing star Juan Pablo Montoya.

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Larson won six NASCAR Cup Series races for Ganassi, including a career single-season best of four in 2017. He finished top 10 in the championship standings from 2016-19.

But then in the midst of riding that huge wave of potential – winning NASCAR Cup Series races, growing into a legitimate championship contender, becoming a favored corporate pitchman and enjoying huge fan adoration – Larson, 28, veered off course.

He used a racial slur while competing in an iRacing event during the pandemic shutdown last April. Live streams captured the moment, and the fallout was swift and immense. Larson was suspended from NASCAR. He lost his job with Ganassi.

And Larson faced the greatest challenge of his life — to earn repentance and to restore his name and character. Larson, who immediately apologized, says his lapse in judgment has been life-changing. And 10 months later, he is intent to show the incident does not reflect the higher standard he expects of himself.

“I think going through what I did and educating myself as much as I could throughout the last year and meeting different people and trying to … educate myself on the struggles African Americans have gone through, it helps me know I am a good person and just had a bad moment of ignorance and judgment,” Larson said. “And now I think going forward I have to do a good job of showing people who I really am and that what I did was just a horrible mistake.”

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

The path back

Larson has spent the months since his suspension doing everything he could to show he is an improved man, awakened to the pain of others, eager to show the error of his ways and humbled by the way life can change in an instant.

Having suddenly lost his primary source of income, Larson began racing at the local level again as often as he could logistically do so. It was a full-circle sort of existence for him and his family, which includes 6-year-old son Owen and 2-year-old daughter Audrey. And as he traveled around the country – he tallied 42 wins, ironically — he was working with a diversity coach and having important, difficult conversations in an effort to learn and grow.

Larson stopped in cities near the short tracks he raced on and spent quality time working with inner-city youth and speaking to African Americans about their plights. He said meeting people in Minneapolis in the midst of the George Floyd protests for social justice had a particularly significant impact on him.

When Larson speaks now, he takes full ownership of his mistake. He does not feel sorry for himself for the upheaval it caused in his life. Instead, he wants to do better, to be better. The terms of his reinstatement to NASCAR require it. The sanctioning body mandated sensitivity training, ongoing speaking engagements to share his experiences, plus coaching and mentorship opportunities with the Urban Youth Racing School (UYRS) and Rev Racing initiatives.

And Larson has secured that all-important platform to prove himself. Hendrick Motorsports has hired him to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet – with the crew and team for recently retired seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

MORE: Hendrick Motorsports signs Larson (Oct. 28)

“Kyle and I spoke several times after what happened,” team owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick said. “We didn’t talk business. Just checking in.

“Once I started learning about all the work he was doing behind the scenes and how sincere he was about it, the lightbulb went off that it might be a real possibility (to sign him). It took a lot of time. I wanted to see how he handled the situation and if he would continue making that effort.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

“He did, and we kept talking and the more I saw from him, the more I felt like he was truly taking responsibility and growing as a person. That was key. I love watching these guys (drivers) grow as people and be successful in their personal and professional lives. I want to see them be winners on and off the track. That’s what we expect of all our drivers and I have zero doubt about Kyle’s ability to deliver.”

Larson says his gratitude and his commitment to do better are immense. He says there was a time – not too long ago – that he genuinely wondered if he would ever get another chance in NASCAR’s premier series.

“It wasn’t that I had given up on it, but maybe lost a little hope and I was accepting of it because I knew the magnitude of my mistake,” Larson said. “Then out of nowhere, I was able to start having conversations with (Hendrick Motorsports).

“Mr. H is obviously one of the most respected people in the sport. For him to reach out and lend support and give me a chance to get back in a Cup car with the best Cup team out there is just so special to me, and I’m very, very thankful for the opportunity. To be around a person who is that well-respected is just going to teach me even more about how to be better.”

Larson compares this opportunity with Hendrick to his first, with Ganassi.

“Even when I got my first chance with Chip, I was always very thankful for that and always loyal to him because of that opportunity,” Larson said. “So I feel in a way, I’ve been given an opportunity very similar to that in a way, maybe more so.

“So I’m definitely going to be loyal to Mr. H forever, or as long as me wants me. I’m a lucky person and humbled by it.”

Expectations

Kurt Busch, Larson’s former Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, said he has zero reservations about Larson’s commitment to rebuild his life and career. The 2004 series champion says he is not surprised about the new opportunity and expects Larson could immediately be a title contender with the team. The two kept in touch even as Larson was racing around the country and Busch is positive that Larson has grown as a person.

“I think we saw a good dose of that in 2020 with how he handled the departure from Chip Ganassi Racing and how he elevated his game to a whole new level on the dirt circuits everywhere,” Busch said. “I was texting him win, after win, after win and I got behind about the 20th win.

“Ultimately, the way he presented himself, the way he carried himself, showed his initiative with NASCAR on rectifying the problem and going through the road to recovery, just everything about him last year shows what he’s going to bring to the track in 2021. The professionalism of Hendrick Motorsports has never been questioned. The guidance there and just everything that I’m seeing adding up is that once he gets the feel of the car, and once he’s in sync with his crew chief – they’re going to be a tough train to stop. I see that program as being one of the top contenders already.”

Larson had earned three top-10 finishes with the Ganassi team in the first four races before the COVID-19 stoppage last year – with a best showing of fourth at Phoenix Raceway just before the season halted.

RELATED: Hendrick Motorsports preview

There’s reason for Larson to be upbeat and motivated as he prepares for 2021. Since January, he’s scored his second consecutive win in the prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals and two weeks ago, posted a career-first win in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.

He enters the season with high expectations for himself, both on and off the track.

“I don’t think (redemption) happens overnight and I’m very thankful I have the opportunity with Mr. Hendrick in getting a second chance in NASCAR to kind of have that platform to go out there and show people I am a good person,” Larson said. “But it does take a long time.”

In the meantime, Larson hopes it won’t take as long to get reacquainted with NASCAR, become familiar with his new race team and continue to build on his off-track outreach efforts.

“Hendrick Motorsports has great, great people there and I’m very lucky to be a part of that team and surrounded by amazing people,” Larson said. “I really don’t think there’s a better team I could have ended up with after the situation I put myself in. Not a better team for Kyle Larson.

“I’m happy, maybe as happy as I’ve ever been, because I have a great opportunity and a second chance,” Larson added, carefully choosing his words. “I think I’m a better person than I was a year ago. I’m content with where I’m at in my life. I have a new perspective on a lot of things. I grew more last year than any other year by far, and I think growth is always good as a person, as a race car driver, as a husband.

“I’m just ready to now get this new year started and get a fresh start.”