NASCAR: How did Kyle Larson end up here?

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

With Kyle Larson set to return to the NASCAR Cup Series for the 2021 season and debut with Hendrick Motorsports, let’s take a look at how he got here.

After missing the final 32 races of the 36-race 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, Kyle Larson is set to return this Sunday, February 14 in the 2021 season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

But instead of driving the #42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, which he did full-time from the 2014 season through the first four races of the 2020 season, the 28-year-old Elk Grove, California native is set to be behind the wheel of the #5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

How and why did we get here?

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After the first four races of the 2020 season, the Cup Series was unexpectedly shut down for what ended up being 10 weeks as a result of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. After the race at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, March 8, there were no more races until Sunday, May 17.

Many drivers from all different series spent those 10 off weeks doing a lot of virtual competition on iRacing. On Easter Sunday, April 12, Larson and a number of others were doing a virtual NASCAR race at Autodromo Nazionale Monza, and that race was being live streamed on multiple Twitch channels.

Larson used the N-word during the race, and as expected, it went viral.

That ultimately led to NASCAR and Chip Ganassi Racing suspending him indefinitely, as expected. Xfinity Series driver Jeremy Clements used the word in an interview with ESPN back in 2013 and ended up missing two races before he was reinstated.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story for Larson.

He ended up being fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and replaced by Matt Kenseth. For the 2021 season, it was Ross Chastain who was named the driver of the #42 Chevrolet.

But while it is undeniable that the root cause of Larson’s firing was his use of the N-word, it wasn’t this mistake which ultimately led to his demise. And no, I’m not getting into the fact that Larson is not black, the use of GA vs. the use of a hard R, etc., because none of that was it, either.

Loss of sponsors was the nail in the coffin.

After the word got around of what he had said, multiple partners cut ties with him, including but not limited to Chevrolet, McDonald’s and Credit One Bank.

Larson’s firing was a business decision. If that weren’t the case, he’d have been axed immediately, long before his sponsors cut him.

And Ganassi himself isn’t afraid to make this clear.

What is actually quite shocking is how this “business decision” argument can be interpreted as minimizing the mistake Larson made.

No one is minimizing that mistake, but this was a business decision. There’s no way around that. We are, after all, talking about racing — you know, the sport where nobody is afraid to invoke the “money means more than talent” argument when a talented up-and-comer doesn’t get a ride — or when a rich kid does?

Larson made a mistake, and he paid for it. He would have paid for it had he not been fired as well, but he had the disadvantage of the business side of racing kicking in to make it worse.

Again, look at what happened to Clements. He was back behind the wheel for his mid-pack team, which he owned, almost immediately after completing sensitivity training.

Look at other sports as well to see just how much of a business decision this was for Ganassi. Former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, also white, used the N-word back in July of 2013. Unlike Larson, he used it and intended to use it in an extremely racist and bigoted context.

“I will jump that fence and fight every n***** here,” he said after a dispute with an African-American security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, according to WHYY.

Cooper, then making a living in a sport dominated by African-American athletes, did not get as much as a slap on the wrist for something that Larson saw change his livelihood. He was not cut and he was not suspended by the NFL or the Eagles.

He ended up playing in every single game from the 2013 season through the 2015 season. In fact, the 2013 season saw him have a career year, as he caught 47 passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns. He added a touchdown in the team’s Wild Card game against the New Orleans Saints.

Why? Because the NFL isn’t NASCAR. NFL players aren’t playing in games because of the sponsors on their jerseys like NASCAR drivers are competing in races because of the sponsors on their cars.

Sure, NFL players can lose separate deals for doing and saying stupid things like Cooper did off the field. That can happen in NASCAR, too (see Bubba Wallace). But sponsorship deals are the lifeblood of NASCAR drivers. There is little to no wiggle room like there is in other sports.

Larson, not having a ride to return to after having been fired like Clements did, did not even apply for reinstatement for several months after completing this mandatory training. He went above and beyond, and instead took those several months, outside of the public eye, to learn about his mistake and grow as a person.

He shouldn’t be criticized for that.

Once he did apply, he was quickly reinstated, and he quickly signed with Hendrick Motorsports to replace seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

It was what Rick Hendrick wanted all along — even months before the racial incident.

Alex Bowman is technically slated to replace Johnson behind the wheel of the #48 Chevrolet, but he has already driven for the team since the 2018 season. He drove the #88 Chevrolet as Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement for three seasons, and it is the #88 Chevrolet which has been renumbered to the #5 Chevrolet for Larson to drive.

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Tune in to Fox at 2:30 p.m. ET this Sunday, February 14 for the live broadcast of the 63rd annual Daytona 500 from Daytona International Speedway to watch Kyle Larson make his first start behind the wheel of the #5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.