NASCAR: The rejection that might have saved Kyle Larson’s career

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images) /

Had Ford not rejected Stewart-Haas Racing’s efforts to sign Kyle Larson, he may not be a NASCAR Cup Series champion aiming to win another title.

Amid rumors of Noah Gragson being Stewart-Haas Racing’s likely replacement for Aric Almirola for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, let’s take a look back at the last time Stewart-Haas Racing tried to sign a driver who was suspended indefinitely and ultimately released by his Cup Series team.

Gragson, who was dropped by Legacy Motor Club after “liking” an inappropriate meme on social media back in August, finds himself in a situation similar to that of Kyle Larson after he used the n-word in a Twitch livestream back in April 2020. That led to a suspension, the loss of numerous sponsors, and ultimately his release from Chip Ganassi Racing.

Larson, who was reinstated by NASCAR a few months later after completing sensitivity training and taking time to reflect on his mistake as well as his growth in the aftermath, ended up signing with Hendrick Motorsports as the replacement for the retiring Jimmie Johnson in 2021.

With the first 10-win season the sport had seen since Johnson pulled it off in 2007, he won the championship in his first year with the team.

But before signing with Rick Hendrick’s team, Larson had been heavily linked to Stewart-Haas Racing as Clint Bowyer’s replacement. Team co-owner Tony Stewart, like Larson, has a successful dirt racing background, and he had tried to sign Larson on more than one occasion during his stint with Chip Ganassi Racing as well.

He had even reportedly handpicked Larson as his replacement for 2017 once he retired, but because he announced his decision to retire at the end of the 2016 season a year early in 2015, Larson could not leave his Chip Ganassi Racing contract at the time, and the No. 14 car ultimately went to Bowyer.

After missing out on him in 2020 and 2021, Stewart was confronted on social media by a fan angry over the fact that he didn’t sign Larson when he had the chance.

"“Shudda put larson in 14 car !! Lost out s&h racing.. Someone with no fear !! Who you got better ?? No one !! Dumbest..”"

But the reality is, he never had the chance, so Stewart couldn’t let that go without laying out the facts.

"“trust me I tried. Learn all of the details before you bash me. I tried for the last 4 years. Ford wouldn’t approve it. I TRIED”"

Thanks to Ford being unwilling to move past Larson’s mistake, he ended up a champion with Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet.

And after winning the 2021 title, he has a good chance to do it again in 2023.

FanDuel Sportsbook, which is now awarding fans a $200 bonus for betting $5 on any driver, lists Larson as this year’s title favorite.

Odds and availability subject to change. Lock in your $200 now!

While, yes, he is still theoretically on probation, it has all worked out for the 31-year-old Elk Grove, California native.

Larson’s talent is undeniable, but what’s also undeniable is the fact that Stewart-Haas Racing have not been a competitive team since the start of the 2021 season.

From 2014 to 2020, they won at least three races per season and averaged 6.57 wins per year. They won 26 races from 2018 to 2020 alone, including two seasons with double-digit victories.

They have won just four races since then, and that tally does not include any victories in 2023, leaving them in line for their first winless season since 2008. Their first win didn’t even come until 2009.

Chase Briscoe, who was ultimately selected to replace Bowyer, has one win in just under three seasons with the team, a span that has seen Larson make 17 trips to victory lane.

As elite as he is, there is simply no way Kyle Larson is where he is now if he signs with Stewart-Haas Racing for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. Period.

Would he probably have more than one win? I’d say so. But even that’s not a sure thing. He went more than two years without a win from 2017 to 2019 at Chip Ganassi Racing, and Chip Ganassi Racing during that stretch ran much better than Stewart-Haas Racing have over the last three years.

Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that Larson wasn’t just considered a potential Stewart-Haas Racing driver because of his Chip Ganassi Racing firing. His contract was due to expire at the end of the 2020 season, and it was well-known throughout the garage that Stewart thought very highly of him and would do whatever he could do to sign him.

Even before the COVID-19 stoppage during which Larson used the racial slur, Stewart-Haas Racing had been viewed as his most likely landing spot.

Hendrick Motorsports had only been seen as an outside contender with Johnson set to retire. In fact, it wasn’t long before Johnson’s retirement announcement that Larson had accused Rick Hendrick and company of “cheating”.

Ironically, he noted at the time that he needed to utilize better “word choice”.

Now with Gragson having emerged as the likely new driver of the No. 10 Ford, it appears that Ford may be more forgiving this time around, which, to be fair, is not all that surprising, given what led to his suspension versus what led to Larson’s.

All-time NASCAR Cup Series wins list. dark. Next

But does Gragson, who recorded just two top 20 finishes in 21 starts with Legacy Motor Club and was likely to lose his ride anyway, have what it takes to run well with a middling Stewart-Haas Racing team that appear to be on the verge of a major rebuild with Kevin Harvick retiring and Almiorla moving on? Either way, it’s not Larson’s concern, and he has Ford to thank for that.