NASCAR: Why didn't Stewart-Haas Racing sign Kyle Larson?

Stewart-Haas Racing signed the recently reinstated Noah Gragson for the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season. Why didn't they do the same for Kyle Larson in 2020?
Kyle Larson, NASCAR
Kyle Larson, NASCAR / Grant Halverson/GettyImages

Noah Gragson emerged as a potential Aric Almirola replacement early in the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season, at which point it was still believed that Almirola was going to be retiring at the end of the year.

But after a four-year run in the Xfinity Series, Gragson ended up signing with the Legacy Motor Club Cup Series team for the 2023 season. Almirola changed his mind and returned for a sixth season behind the wheel of the No. 10 Ford.

Gragson struggled during the 2023 season, recording just two top 20 finishes in 21 starts before he found himself suspended by both NASCAR and his own team when he was discovered to have "liked" an inappropriate meme on social media.

At this point, there were already rumors swirling that he was going to be replaced for the 2024 season due to poor performance, and he ultimately ended up requesting his own release from the organization. That release was granted, and the team signed John Hunter Nemechek as his replacement for the upcoming season.

Noah Gragson was later reinstated by NASCAR, but with no team to return to.

This time around, however, Almirola opted not to return to Stewart-Haas Racing -- although he did, once again, put off a full retirement and sign with Joe Gibbs Racing's Xfinity Series team to compete part-time in 2024.

With team co-owner Tony Stewart having reportedly long had his eye on Gragson, the 25-year-old Las Vegas, Nevada native was viewed as the frontrunner to replace Almirola in 2024. While sponsorship is still being sorted out, Gragson is indeed set to join Stewart-Haas Racing as a full-time driver next season.

Why didn't Stewart-Haas Racing sign Kyle Larson for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season?

While no two mistakes are alike, Larson found himself in the same situation Gragson was in, but back in 2020.

During the 10-week hiatus caused by COVID-19-related restrictions, he ended up being suspended by both NASCAR and his team, Chip Ganassi Racing, for using a racial slur on an iRacing stream. He was ultimately released after several sponsors pulled their support from his entry, and he finished the 2020 season with just four starts to his name.

Several months later, he was reinstated by NASCAR, and Stewart-Haas Racing was viewed as his most likely landing spot for 2021. Stewart had tried to sign Larson on multiple occasions before, and Larson was due to become a free agent at the end of the 2020 season anyway.

Stewart had even tried to get Larson to replace himself when he retired after the 2016 season, but because Stewart announced his decision to retire a year early, Larson was still contractually tied to Chip Ganassi Racing. The team ended up signing Clint Bowyer instead.

But it was Chase Briscoe, not Larson, who ended up being named Bowyer's replacement for the 2021 season. Why could Stewart-Haas Racing sign Noah Gragson fresh off a suspension, but not Larson?

Stewart addressed this situation back in 2020 when confronted by an angry fan on social media. In that fan's exact words...

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

Knowing what he knew, Stewart felt he had to address the comment.

"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"

Given how many partners Larson lost after saying what he said, it was not all that surprising that Stewart could not get Ford to sign off on the Elk Grove, California native just a few months after the incident.

Fortunately for Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford apparently did not have the same issue with Gragson, even though, as mentioned, sponsorship remains a work in progress. The next step for Gragson is bouncing back after what was a disappointing rookie season, even before his mistake.

Considering Stewart-Haas Racing's decline in performance over the last three seasons, them missing out on Larson was probably for the better. He ended up signing with Hendrick Motorsports as Jimmie Johnson's replacement and winning 10 races, the most since Johnson in 2007, in his first season with the team en route to winning the championship.

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In addition to Gragson, Josh Berry is also set to join Stewart-Haas Racing in what figures to be somewhat of a rebuild year for the team, replacing the Fox Sports broadcast booth-bound Kevin Harvick behind the wheel of the No. 4 Ford. Briscoe is set to return for a fourth season behind the wheel of the No. 14 Ford, while Ryan Preece is set to return for a second season behind the wheel of the No. 41 Ford.