NASCAR: Hendrick Motorsports entering a new era

Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, NASCAR -Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, NASCAR -Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Kyle Larson signing with Hendrick Motorsports for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season sets the team up for the long haul.

The driver who opened up the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season as arguably the top pending free agent on the market worked his way back into that discussion despite having been fired back in mid-April and having not competed in a race since early March.

Kyle Larson, who drove the #42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014 until early last season, was fired by the team after multiple sponsors dropped him over his use of a racial slur during a virtual iRacing event back on Easter Sunday, April 12.

NASCAR, which suspended Larson indefinitely before Chip Ganassi fired him, required that he complete sensitivity training before being reinstated.

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He did that almost immediately after he was fired and suspended. But what he did not do was apply for reinstatement.

In fact, it took him nearly six months to do it, six months during which the 28-year-old Elk Grove, California focused on growing as a person and being a better and more educated human being in response to his big mistake. Notably, he did all of that outside of the public eye. But Larson did apply for reinstatement, and that request was approved as expected.

All signs pointed to Larson signing with Hendrick Motorsports for the 2021 NASCAR season, and they had pointed to Hendrick Motorsports for quite some time.

Many drivers had been linked to Hendrick Motorsports as the potential common teammate to Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron next year with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson having been set to retire after 2020.

But many of them had already been crossed off the list for one reason or another, leaving Larson as the most likely option — and the option team owner Rick Hendrick reportedly had in mind all along.

Hendrick said several months beforehand that he had already selected a driver to take the team’s open seat for next year, but that an announcement would serve as a distraction for the team’s playoff drivers.

What announcement would cause more of a distraction than the announcement of Larson, given why he was suspended to begin with?

Plus, he would effectively be replacing one of the sport’s three seven-time champions, so this signing would be a bigger deal than most.

Sure, it was Alex Bowman who got the nod to drive Johnson’s #48 Chevrolet next year, but Bowman already drove the #88 Chevrolet for the team, so it was his, not Johnson’s car, which Johnson’s true “replacement” would actually end up driving.

Indeed, Larson signed with Hendrick Motorsports, and confirming previous speculation, he is set to drive a renumbered #5 Chevrolet, a number which the team hadn’t used since 2017 when Kasey Kahne was behind the wheel.

This move sets Hendrick Motorsports up for the long haul, as they now have four drivers aged 28 or younger on their team. Just six seasons ago, none of the drivers in their 2021 lineup were competing for the team.

Their 2015 lineup consisted of 35-year-old Kahne, 40-year-old Johnson, 41-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 44-year-old Jeff Gordon.

Elliott, now 25, replaced Gordon after the 2015 season. Byron, now 23, replaced Kahne after the 2017 season, and Bowman, now 27, replaced Earnhardt after the 2017 season as well.

Now Hendrick Motorsports have officially turned all of their sights to the future, bringing on the 28-year-old Larson as the latest addition to their new young core. The average age of their four 2021 drivers is 25.75. The combined age of their 2015 drivers excluding Gordon is still more than the combined age of their drivers for next year.

The team’s four drivers from the 2015 season have a combined 220 victories to their names. Their four drivers from the 2020 season have a combined 97 victories to their names.

Even with Elliott’s 2020 championship, making him the third youngest driver to win a title and the youngest since Gordon won the first of his four in 1995, their four drivers for the 2021 season have a combined 20 victories to their names.

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For Hendrick Motorsports, the addition of Larson signifies that after decades of competition with experienced drivers winning big races and championships, they are focused on ushering in a new era of race winners and champions. And Elliott got what they hope to be a trend started by capping off the 2020 season with a title.