NASCAR: What Kyle Larson’s absence says about Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR /

From a purely competitive standpoint, what does Kyle Larson’s absence throughout 89% of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season say about his talent?

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season has now been in the books for over three months after Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott won the final two races of the season in effective must-win situations to secure his first title in his fifth full season.

So with the start of the 2021 season just days away, let’s set aside the discussion of what happened back last April: Kyle Larson’s use of the N-word and his ensuing suspension and firing from Chip Ganassi Racing.

Let’s even set aside his work to get back to NASCAR. Let’s instead focus purely on the competition aspect of his 2021 return with his new team, now the reigning champions of stock car racing’s highest level for the first time in four years.

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When Larson lost his ride and was replaced behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet by 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, he had competed in just four of the 36 races on the 2020 schedule.

So 89% of the 2020 season for Chip Ganassi Racing was contested without Larson, and aside from Kurt Busch’s upset playoff win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that sent him to the round of 8 for the first time since he left Stewart-Haas Racing, it was a disappointing season for the #42 team and the #1 team.

But Larson’s extended absence says more about his own talent than about Chip Ganassi Racing’s down year.

Chip Ganassi Racing are still one of the sport’s top teams. Busch, who entered the year on a six-year winning streak, was able to extend that streak and had plenty of solid outings aside from his surprising victory. But by no means are they up there with teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

Entering the 2020 season, Larson had been riding a streak of four consecutive top nine finishes in the championship standings. The only other two drivers who could make that claim were two-time champion Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing and 2014 champion Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing.

Larson finished in a career-high sixth place in 2019 after ending a win drought of over two years at Dover International Speedway in the playoffs.

The 28-year-old Elk Grove, California native entered the 2020 season having finished higher than his teammate in the championship standings in five of his first six seasons in the Cup Series, including the last four. From 2016 to 2019, his average finish in the standings was 8.0, while the average finish of his teammate in the standings was 14.5.

While some of this can be chalked up to Jamie McMurray’s struggles toward the end of his career, including the fact that he secured no wins after 2013, Larson did also manage to beat Busch by seven positions in 2019, despite the fact that Busch extended his win streak to six seasons with a win at Kentucky Speedway in his first season with the team.

Larson also entered the 2020 season having led more laps than his teammates in five consecutive seasons. From 2015 through 2019, Larson led a total of 3,157 laps. His Chip Ganassi Racing teammates had led a combined 256, and 212 of those laps led came in 2019 when they signed Busch as McMurray’s replacement behind the wheel of the #1 Chevrolet.

Even then, Larson led far more laps than Busch, leading a total of 529 circuits. From 2015 to 2018, he led 2,628 laps, compared to McMurray’s 44.

Now let’s look at 2020, and just how much Chip Ganassi Racing struggled to contend without him.

After four races, Larson sat in a seventh place tie in the championship standings with three top 10 finishes and a best finish of fourth at Phoenix Raceway. At this point, Busch sat in 16th. Busch ended up finishing in 10th place in the standings with one win, seven top five finishes and 19 top 10 finishes.

Kenseth, Larson’s replacement, finished in 28th place with 521 points. Even including the 121 points Larson scored in four races (30.25 points per race, nearly twice as high as Kenseth’s 16.28), the #42 team only managed to finish in 22nd in the owner standings.

Now, it’s pretty safe to say that Kenseth certainly isn’t the driver he used to be. But the “washed-up” claim only holds so much water. Prior to 2020, the former champion’s most recent start had resulted in a solid sixth place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2018, and his second most recent start as a full-time driver resulted in a win at Phoenix Raceway in 2017.

He also did almost manage to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this July, finishing in second place behind Harvick. Yet he recorded just two top 10 finishes in 32 races, including only one in the final 31, with an average finish of 21.4, the worst of his career.

All in all, Larson’s absence illustrated just how talented he is, having secured those results with a team that he conclusively made look a lot faster and more consistent than they really are.

The one concern for him moving forward should be a lack of closing out races, having won just one of his last 86 races despite leading 1,694 laps in those 86 races.

But that had been a concern for Elliott as well, and he was able to overcome that when it mattered most and is now a Cup Series champion.

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Rick Hendrick, who wanted to sign Larson for the 2021 season even before the 2020 season started due to his status as a pending free agent, got his wish. While there were a few “twists and turns”, shall we say, along the way, the end result is exactly what he had wanted.

Now Larson has a chance to shine for arguably the sport’s top team alongside three perennial playoff drivers and the reigning champion. What can he accomplish in year number one with Hendrick’s team?