More excited than nervous, championship butterflies have eluded Kyle Larson — so far

PHOENIX – Within a year, Kyle Larson went from watching the championship race at Hendrick Motorsports to competing in the championship race for Hendrick Motorsports.

During the 2020 finale, Larson sat among team engineers in front of numerous TVs inside Hendrick Motorsports’ control center at the Concord, North Carolina shop, seeing and hearing firsthand the information they relayed to at-track personnel as Chase Elliott piloted his way to the organization’s first title since 2013. Larson left that night with a renewed sense of motivation for the 2021 season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports.

“I mean, I was obviously excited to be back in a Cup car,” Larson said Thursday during Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center. “But I remember walking out of that room thinking, like, ‘Wow, they just won the championship. I’m racing for the best team going into the season.’ “

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Not only is he racing for arguably the best team – Hendrick Motorsports boasts a series-best 16 wins in the 35 events so far – he’s racing for a championship with arguably the best team. Larson is one of Hendrick Motorsports’ two drivers in the Championship 4; the other being Elliott. Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. from Joe Gibbs Racing complete the quartet for Sunday’s title showdown (3 p.m. ET on NBC/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Larson signed with Hendrick Motorsports in October 2020 – about a week after he was reinstated by NASCAR officials following his completion of sensitivity training and more than six months after his April suspension for use of a racial slur during an iRacing event. Since his debut in the No. 5 Chevrolet, he has won a career-high and series-best nine races, including three of the last four.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve truly raced for a championship, and I don’t really remember how I felt then,” Larson said. “I won a sprint-car championship in 2010. I won the K&N championship in 2012. So, it’s been almost a decade since I’ve been in this position with a championship. I feel like, though, if I was nervous then, I don’t feel nervous now.”

It’s his first Championship 4 appearance, though.

“I’m sure once Sunday comes around, I will have butterflies,” Larson said. “But right now, I haven’t felt them.”

Larson’s best playoff run until now was 2019, when he made it to the Round of 8 and finished sixth in the final standings. Otherwise, he had two Round of 12 showings in 2017-18 and a Round of 16 nod in 2016. Of course, in 2020, he was not playoff eligible.

Circumstances sure are different this year.

“This is something you always dream about, being in this position to win a championship,” Larson said. “I’m just very happy and thankful and lucky to be sitting where I am right now.”