By David Morgan, Associate Editor
AVONDALE, Ariz. – As Chase Elliott was driving his way toward winning the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series championship last season, Hendrick Motorsports’ newest hire was keeping a keen eye on the proceedings back at the shop in North Carolina.
That driver was Kyle Larson.
Signed by Hendrick after losing his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing just four races into 2020 due to the use of a racial slur on iRacing, Larson’s path to redemption also became a path toward becoming a Cup Series champion.
After watching Elliott claim his first Cup championship, Larson set his mind on going out and winning one of his own when he climbed behind the wheel in 2021. Little did we know just how special of a season Larson was about to have.
When the checkered flag waved on Sunday’s Cup Championship race at Phoenix with the No. 5 Chevrolet at the top of the leaderboard, Larson’s path was complete and he had made it to the pinnacle of NASCAR racing, now ranked among the greats as champion.
“18 months ago, I didn’t think that I was ever going to be in a Cup car again,” Larson said. “Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship.
“It’s definitely been a journey, a roller coaster. But I’m very thankful for my second chance and every opportunity I’ve been given in these last 18 months.
“Life is a crazy thing, and you’ve just got to stay positive through it all, and everything will hopefully work out for you.”
A rundown of Larson’s final stats for the year would show him with 10 wins, 20 top-five finishes, 26 top-10 finishes, and an astounding 2581 laps led. Larson’s five wins in the Playoffs matches him with his hero Tony Stewart, who put up the same win total in his march toward the championship in 2011.
“I didn’t know that we would have a season like this,” Larson added. “I thought — with Chase winning last year, I knew we would be strong, but I didn’t think that we would ever win double-digit races in the Cup Series. This isn’t anything that I thought I would ever do in the Cup Series, double-digit wins and winning the championship, winning half the playoff races.
“I thought when Tony Stewart won half of the playoff races in the year that he won the championship, I was like, that’ll never be done again.
“For me to match him on that, the laps led, the wins, the top 5s and stuff, and all the wins outside of Cup racing, I never thought racing for Hendrick Motorsports that I would get to race a single dirt race in a year, let alone as many as I have this year. It’s definitely an unbelievable season on so many different levels.”
Even with such a dominating season, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Larson was going to walk away with the title in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. As the laps were winding down, it looked like the cards just weren’t in Larson’s favor to win the race or the championship.
Down the stretch, Martin Truex, Jr. led the way and seemed to be on autopilot toward the title, but when a debris caution flew late in the race, Larson had his second chance to fight it out with his championship rivals for the trophy.
A blazing-fast pit stop by the No. 5 team put Larson in the lead and the rest is history. With nothing but clean air in front of him, Larson was able to hold off Truex over the final 28 laps to win the race, bringing his story full circle as the newly minted champion.
“There were so many points in this race where I did not think we were going to win,” Larson said. “Without my pit crew on that last stop, we would not be standing right here. They are the true winners of this race. They are true champions. I’m just blessed to be a part of this group. Every single man or person, man and woman at Hendrick Motorsports, this win is for all of us, and every one of you.
“This is unbelievable. I’m speechless.”