Kyle Larson is hoping to retire with Hendrick from NASCAR

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Kyle Larson, driver of the # 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on Sunday, November 7, 2021 in Avondale, Arizona. (Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images / TNS)

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Despite the superlative “best driver” that many call him, there was a time when even Kyle Larson struggled to find a ride in NASCAR. He recalled a series of meetings with team owners in 2011 when only one came up with the idea to sign him to drive their car.

That owner was Chip Ganassi, whose last race in NASCAR was the same one Larson won to become the Cup Series champion on Sunday. Larson won the title race for Hendrick Motorsports and said he is now joking with Jeff Gordon, the team’s co-owner and former driver of the organization, about this early meeting.

“I was a little excited to be at Hendrick Motorsports and to be there with Jeff,” said Larson. “I remember he showed me the shop.”

He remembered meeting Gordon’s formidable model wife, Ingrid Vendebosch, and thinking about hanging out with Gordon, someone he’d been outlaw karting to since childhood in Northern California.

But Hendrick had another driver in his pipeline, Chase Elliott, and Larson was dismayed to learn that the strong team disapproved of the dirt racing he loved. It was one of the many disappointing meetings he had in those few days as a teenager. He also faced the economic pitfall of many NASCAR hopefuls.

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Kyle Larson (right) and son Owen celebrate Rick Scuteri after winning a NASCAR Cup Series car race and championship on Sunday, November 7, 2021 in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri) AP

“You’re going through the moves: ‘Nice to meet you. You have a cool résumé. Yeah, we need a couple hundred thousand dollars so you can race our car next year, ”said Larson. “I have no one who brings money. Then when I met Chip, I felt on top of the world. “

The meeting would mark Larson’s later championship career that made significant changes in the past year and a half. He signed a development driver contract with the team then called Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in 2012 and started a full season in NASCAR’s lower K&N Pro Series East as a participant in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. (Larson is Japanese-American.) He was the first graduate of the program to win a NASCAR Cup championship in 2021.

His first full-time season in the Cup Series came in 2014 for Ganassi, where he stayed until the spring of last year when he used a racial slur during a virtual racing event that earned him a NASCAR ban and cost him his sponsorship and job. Larson spent the remainder of the pandemic-stricken season out of the spotlight, working with color communities to educate and improve while taking victories at dirt racing events across the country.

As the 2020 season neared its end, discussions began with Hendrick Motorsports about Larson’s possible NASCAR return. Rick Hendrick, Hendrick Motorsports team owner and friend of Ganassi, was impressed with Larson’s talent behind the wheel, despite having a reputation for “unable to close” or running too close to the wall and wreckage. The more they interacted, the more Hendrick said that he was comfortable with Larson’s “heart”.

“He’s a good person,” said Hendrick. “I knew he was talented, but I didn’t know his soul. He really impressed me with the personality he is. “

This season, Larson has pledged to contribute $ 5 for each lap driven and $ 5,000 for each top 5 result, which will be shared among three nonprofits with which he is affiliated: The Urban Youth Racing School, The Sanneh Foundation and Hendrick Cares. After a dominant season, Larson’s pledge amounts to $ 145,000.

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FILE – Anthony Martin, right, who founded the Urban Youth Racing School, speaks at a press conference while speaking with Kyle Larson driver of Car # 5 in the NASCAR Cup Series ahead of the scheduled races at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, Seated June 27, 2021, in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. Urban Youth Racing School, the Philadelphia-based program that creates minority racing opportunities, played a pivotal role in Larson’s personal comeback. Founders Anthony and Michelle Martin were at Phoenix Raceway when Larson won the champion and said it was proof that this second chance was well deserved. (AP Photo / Matt Slocum, File) Matt Slocum AP

When he was announced as the future driver of Hendricks # 5 Chevrolet Team, the expectation was that as a top driver, Larson would finally be competitive in top gear. But nobody, neither Larson nor Hendrick nor No. 5 Crew Chief Cliff Daniels, expected the results they would get: ten wins plus the All-Star race with five wins in the postseason to break Tony Stewart’s 2011 record in which he won half of the playoff events by NASCAR.

“I thought the team would be good, but at the beginning of the season I had no idea that we could win 18 races,” said Hendrick of his four-car drive. “And (Larson) could win 10.”

Stewart tweeted on Sunday that Larson is the “best racing driver (he) he has ever seen”. Calling Stewart his racing hero, Larson said he’s trying to model his own schedule, which includes sprint car, late-model, and midget races, according to the NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers.

These events are viewed as extracurricular events by Hendrick Motorsports, which has softened its attitude towards its drivers participating in outdoor races during the season. Larson said these races improve his driving. He had marquee wins at events like the Chili Bowl (Tulsa, Okla.) And the Knoxville Nationals that year, and a Cup Series championship was further evidence of his talent. It also indicates the success of the Hendrick Motorsports group.

Larson and Daniels are only in their first season together as driver and crew chief. While the expected shift in the industry to the next-gen car next season leaves many questions unanswered about competitive performance, there’s no denying that Hendrick is firing on all cylinders. A clutch pit stop by his crew practically brought Larson the final victory in Phoenix. A different request for a pit stop at the beginning of the race by Daniels was questioned in the broadcast, but Larson was again in the top 5 at the end of the first stage. Hendricks teams together led about 45% of the laps in the 2021 season, compared with the combined 30% laps from Joe Gibbs Racing.

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Kyle Larson makes a pit stop during a NASCAR Cup Series car race on Sunday, November 7, 2021 in Avondale, Ariz. (AP Photo / Rick Scuteri) Rick Scuteri AP

“It takes so many people in the Hendrick Motorsports business to get Kyle back after he was out last season,” said Daniels. “There are so many people behind all of this.”

Hendrick is aiming for more wins over the next year and beyond with a stable of young talent between Larson, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron. The team owner said on Sunday that he hopes Larson will retire as a Hendrick Motorsports driver.

“I really like our line-up right now,” said Hendrick. “I just like the chemistry between the four drivers. That’s important – that they get along. Of course they want to hit each other, but I’ve invested a lot in William. I’ve invested a lot in Chase, Alex, and Kyle. I hope we can keep the band together because we have such a good core that works together. “

“I cannot stress this enough,” continued Hendrick. “You don’t hear any friction between our boys and our crew chiefs. They work really well together. “

Larson said the same thing and imagined his future.

“I hope I stick with his organization as long as I want to drive Cup cars,” said Larson. “I don’t know how long that is. If we still win races and championships in 20 years, I will still do it. “

Larson, once a starry teenager walking into the store, will make a return to North Carolina as a key figure in Hendrick Motorsports’ Record Driver / Owners Championship in the 14th Cup Series. He will also return with a title secured and hopes for many more.

NASCAR and Charlotte FC beat reporter Alex Andrejev, who joined The Observer in January 2020 after an internship with the Washington Post. She played Division I volleyball at Columbia University before taking her Masters from the University of Southern California.
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