NASCAR: Kyle Larson is officially back in the Cup Series

Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Kyle Larson had been arguably the hottest free agent on the NASCAR Cup Series driver market for the 2021 season before he was fired. Now he is officially back.

Kyle Larson entered the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season as one of four drivers who had driven for just one team on a full-time basis for at least six seasons. He was in his seventh season driving the #42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing before he was fired after multiple sponsors cut ties with him for using the N-word.

Like two of the other three drivers in this situation, Larson’s contract was set to end after the 2020 season anyway.

The other two drivers who entered the year in this position were Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson, who retired after the 2020 season, and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin had been under contract through 2021, and he has since signed an extension.

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The 28-year-old Elk Grove, California native had widely been considered the top free agent on the market for the 2021 season, a title that was reinforced when Ryan Blaney re-upped his deal with Team Penske for several more years last March.

Despite the backlash he received after his incident, there was never a guarantee that he wouldn’t be back in NASCAR at some point. After applying for reinstatement and quickly being reinstated by NASCAR, he ended up back atop the list of “top free agents” following several months of individual growth following his incident, and it didn’t take long for his name to be crossed off that list.

He ended up signing a multi-year deal to drive for Hendrick Motorsports as Johnson’s replacement in the team’s driver lineup, something that had been rumored long before his firing.

But he is set to pilot the #5 Chevrolet, as Alex Bowman moved from the #88 Chevrolet to Johnson’s #48 Chevrolet and the #88 Chevrolet was renumbered to the #5 Chevrolet, a number which the team hadn’t used since Kasey Kahne drove it in 2017.

Before his firing, many believed that Larson would remain loyal to Ganassi, who allowed him to maintain his dirt racing schedule during his tenure with the team, and sign an extension. Larson stated multiple times that this was his priority.

But after the incident, a return with Chip Ganassi Racing was never feasible for 2021, given the fact that it was the cancellation of several significant sponsorship deals with Chip Ganassi’s partners that ultimately led to his firing.

Ross Chastain is set to replace Matt Kenseth, who replaced Larson for the rest of the 2020 season, behind the wheel of the #42 Chevrolet this year.

Larson had also long been considered a potential Stewart-Haas Racing driver, as team co-owner Tony Stewart stated back in 2015 that he wanted Larson to replace him after he retired following the 2016 season. Unfortunately, due to his contractual status with Chip Ganassi Racing at the time, Larson was unable to sign a deal with another team.

Stewart ended up putting Clint Bowyer behind the wheel of the #14 Ford ahead of the 2017 season. Bowyer retired after the 2020 season, marking five straight seasons of driver changes for the team, but the team named Chase Briscoe his replacement. Unsurprisingly, Stewart admitted that he wanted to sign Larson, but it just wasn’t possible.

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Now Larson is officially back, and he is set to debut for Hendrick Motorsports in the 63rd annual Daytona 500 this afternoon at Daytona International Speedway. This race is set to be broadcast live on Fox beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET.