Jimmie Johnson is retiring, but adding Kyle Larson sets Hendrick up for NASCAR dominance

Alex Andrejev

Kyle Larson reflected on a moment in which he was in Philadelphia a few days before NASCAR raced at nearby Pocono.

The Cup driver was there to run a sprint car, not a stock car, and he added a stop on his trip to apologize to those he had hurt for saying the N-word a few months earlier, a choice that cost him his job, sponsors and the rest of his NASCAR season.

“Driving back to where I have my motorhome parked, I’m passing everybody’s motorhomes driving the opposite direction of me,” Larson said. “That also put into perspective my mistake and messing up, and that could’ve been my bus driving in that direction.”

There he visited the Urban Youth Racing School, a nonprofit that provides opportunities in motorsports to its members — most of whom are Black — and wrote about the experience in an essay he published to his website earlier this month. The trip served as a defining point in his process of apologizing, learning and atoning for his use of the racial slur during his six-month suspension from NASCAR.

Since his recent return to the public eye, Larson’s NASCAR membership has been reinstated and he is able to compete next year. He signed a multi-year contract with Hendrick Motorsports on Wednesday morning to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet for the team in the Cup Series. It’s an opportunity Larson said he never expected.

“I’m very thankful that Rick (Hendrick), as a friend, reached out first and then we were able to build an even deeper relationship and now turn it into this,” Larson said.

The industry has largely been willing to accept the driver’s efforts to make amends, but it is difficult to say if and when Larson will be able to put what he said during an April iRacing event behind him. The career-defining incident tarnished his reputation with sponsors and forced him to miss nearly an entire season. The No. 5 car he’ll drive next year has no sponsors signed and Larson said he still has relationships to rebuild.

Larson is coming out on the other side more educated and aware, he said, and even with a promotion. The four-car team of Hendrick Motorsports is considered a powerhouse in the industry compared to the smaller, two-car operation of Larson’s former Chip Ganassi Racing team. At 28-years old, he will be the oldest driver in the organization, setting an example for teammates Alex Bowman (27), Chase Elliott (24) and William Byron (22).

“Everybody deserves a second chance,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. “I’m not thankful that (Larson) got in trouble, but I admire the way he handled it and I’m excited about the future.”

Hendrick said he had always been a fan of Larson’s scrappiness behind the wheel. The driver has six career Cup victories and he won 42 sprint car races during his NASCAR suspension this year. Hendrick said he never attempted to poach Larson out of respect for his friend Chip Ganassi, but after CGR released the driver mid-season, Hendrick said he reached out and learned about the work Larson was doing off the track.

“I had to be careful,” Hendrick said. “I wouldn’t do something that would hurt our company, our name, our brand and so that was important to me.”

Hendrick said that seeing Larson “lay his heart out” for everybody and admit his mistakes convinced him to sign the driver. Chevrolet agreed to resume its relationship with Larson after suspending it at the same time as NASCAR.

Now Hendrick’s roster is set and the owner is looking to the future of his team. With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time racing after the season, and if neither Elliott nor Bowman wins this year’s title, the organization will be without a champion driver presence, but Hendrick said he is excited about what’s ahead for his “young guns.”

“We don’t have a champion, but I think these guys are going to be champions,” Hendrick said.

Elliott already has nine Cup wins in his six years at NASCAR’s top level and is expected to continue dominating the six road courses on the 2021 schedule. Bowman is emerging as a consistent playoff presence and is in contention to reach the Championship 4 race this season, with two career Cup wins already under his belt. Byron secured his first win in the series to make the playoffs ahead of Johnson earlier this year. The future seems bright.

“We’re not looking at someone that’s getting ready to retire,” Hendrick said. “It’s exciting to see the young guys.”

Larson’s resume and skill fits in at the top-tier organization. He was always considered a major player in free agency years and even after his suspension had top teams talking, but it is perhaps his personal growth and maturity, which Larson said he developed over the course of his time away, as much as his talent, that could serve the team fielding a roster of drivers all under 30.

Larson said he has had some communication with his future teammates, and has especially been texting with Bowman to offer advice on his winged-sprint car business endeavors. His voice at HMS will likely grow as time goes on. Larson is the father of two young children and said he wants to set a good example for them as well as his teammates.

“I want to be somebody that anybody can look up to, but especially my teammates,” Larson said. “That’s a responsibility of mine.”

It will be a new role for the driver, who noted that his last two teammates at CGR, Jamie McMurray and Kurt Busch, respectively, were 16 and 14 years older than him.

“They were both teenagers before I was born,” Larson said. “To now be the oldest in only my 20s is weird to think.”

But Larson’s mistake, which he said was the result of him being “stupid and ignorant,” forced him through his greatest period of personal growth yet, at a time when his future team is losing one of its strongest leadership voices in Johnson.

“I was a good person before,” Larson said. “But I think I’ve had a lot of room to improve over these last six months. I think I’ve grown more than I have ever before.”