How Once-Exiled NASCAR Star Kyle Larson Found New Life at Hendrick Motorsports

Jackson Wheeler
9 Min Read



Rick Hendrick never hesitated when Kyle Larson became available in late 2020. Likewise, Jim Campbell of Chevrolet Racing was comfortable when the legendary owner wanted Larson to drive for his team.

And former NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon was all-in when Hendrick went after Larson. But few within the motorsports industry could have dared imagine what was about to happen.

“It’s worked out pretty well, hasn’t it?” Gordon recently said, a broad smile on his face.

In early 2020, after that season’s fourth race, team owner Chip Ganassi fired Larson for his well-documented use of a deplorable racial slur during an on-line racing event. NASCAR immediately suspended Larson from all series. Chevrolet quickly disassociated itself from Larson, as did many of his sponsors. At best, Larson’s future looked bleak.

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Kyle Larson has been the top driver in the NASCAR Cup Series over the past three season, finishing first, seventh and third in the standings.

Through it all, though, he never fretted much about maybe never running another NASCAR race.

“I had very little optimism that I’d ever get back,” the cinch future Hall of Famer recently said at Daytona International Speedway. “But I would have been fine with that; content if that was the outcome. I would have made a good living racing dirt for the rest of my life, so I wasn’t worried too much.

“But I did think that if I ever got back, I never expected it would be with Hendrick Motorsports. I was shocked when it happened. Shocked and grateful and thankful at how it turned out. It’s been great.”

After months of NASCAR-mandated sensitivity training and a series of public service outreaches, the sanctioning body reinstated him in the fall of 2020. Hendrick and Gordon were four-square with the decision to pursue Larson, as was Campbell and Chevrolet Racing.

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Rick Hendrick knew that he had a winner in Kyle Larson.

“We talked at length with Kyle and with NASCAR and with Mr. Hendrick to understand what had happened,” said Campbell, who added there was no hesitation in accepting Larson back. “All four of us—Kyle, Mr. Hendrick, NASCAR, and the Urban Racing School in Philadelphia—determined that the time was right. We agreed that he’d done all the right things.

“And to this day, he’s continued to do the right things. His long association work within our (Chevrolet-sponsored) Urban Racing League program and the work of his foundation showed us how serious he was. We talked among ourselves about the things he’d done to prepare himself to reenter the sport.”

“And to this day, he’s continued to do the right things.”

Larsons’s first three years with Hendrick and crew chief Cliff Daniels were unworldly: 17 Cup Series victories, 48 top-5 finishes, 63 top-10 finishes, victories in the 2021 and 2023 NASCAR All-Star races, all top-10 in final points all three years, including the 2021 season championship and second last year.

“I wanted him in the worst kind of way,” Hendrick said when asked about taking on a proven winner who came with baggage. “I knew Kyle and I thought I knew what kind of person he really was. I knew the story (surrounding the racial slur). It never crossed my mind that it would be something to worry about going forward.

“And it didn’t bother me that he wanted to run all the other series he runs. I knew how important that was to him, so I accepted it. His non-NASCAR racing was never a great concern. I think it makes him a better driver over here because he runs those other series so often.”

By the time Larson reached NASCAR the first time, he was already a known quantity among open-wheel and dirt-track fans. He’d won the Chili Bowl, the King’s Royal, the Knoxville Nationals, the Prairie Dirt Nationals, and virtually every other significant open-wheel event.

He did a few Craftsman Truck Series races in 2012-2018, the full Xfinity Series schedule in 2013, and a limited Xfinity schedule for several owners between 2014-2018. After winning two Truck Series races for Steve Turner and Maury Gallagher, he backed that with 14 Xfinity victories for Turner, Hank Scott, and Ganassi.

His Cup debut came with a few races with Scott in 2013. He went all-in with Ganassi in 2014, running the full schedule until early in 2020, when he was fired by Ganassi, suspended by NASCAR, and lost much of his NASCAR good will for the infamous racial slur heard ‘round the world.

Shortly after being reinstated in October of 2020, he released several statements to apologize for his action and acknowledge his lapse in judgment.

“The work I’ve done over the last six months has had a major impact on me and I will make the most of this opportunity and look forward to the future,” he said. “I was ignorant enough to think the N-word was OK, but that’s no excuse. The first lesson is that the N-word is not mine to use. It cannot be part of my vocabulary. The history of the word is connected to slavery, injustice and trauma that is deep and has gone on for far too long.”

He went on:

“Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago because it would’ve made me a better person—the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. For too long, I was a part of a problem that’s larger than me. I want my children to know that words matter; apologizing for your mistakes matters; accountability matters; forgiveness matters; treating others with respect matters.

“I won’t stop listening and learning, but for me now it’s about action — doing the right things, being a part of the solution and writing a new chapter that my children will be proud to read.”

So far, so good.

Lettermark

Unemployed after three years as an Army officer and Vietnam vet, Al Pearce shamelessly lied his way onto a small newspaper’s sports staff in Virginia in 1969. He inherited motorsports, a strange and unfamiliar beat which quickly became an obsession. 

In 53 years – 48 ongoing with Autoweek – there have been thousands of NASCAR, NHRA, IMSA, and APBA assignments on weekend tracks and major venues like Daytona Beach, Indianapolis, LeMans, and Watkins Glen. The job – and accompanying benefits – has taken him to all 50 states and more than a dozen countries.  

He’s been fortunate enough to attract interest from several publishers, thus his 13 motorsports-related books. He can change a tire on his Hyundai, but that’s about it.

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Jackson Wheeler is a skilled editor at Speedofdaily.com, specializing in automotive content. With a background in Journalism and Automotive Engineering, he combines his passion for cars with his writing expertise to deliver captivating articles. Jackson's deep knowledge of automotive technology and his racing experience make him a valuable asset to the team, providing readers with informative and engaging content.
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