by Julian Spivey
Redemption stories are almost always a great thing in sports – and in life in general – and what Kyle Larson has been doing in the NASCAR Cup Series thus far in the 2021 season is certainly a redemption story. However, it’s one – though seemingly popular with much of the NASCAR fan-base – I just don’t find myself caring about or wanting to see.
Larson has dominated the NASCAR Cup Series so much in the last month that it hasn’t for one second during the last three points races and the $1 million to the winner exhibition All-Star Race seemed like anybody else would find themselves in Victory Lane on the circuit.
Over his three straight points race wins at Charlotte, Sonoma and Nashville Larson has led 82 percent of the laps (648 of 792) and that number would’ve been higher without some differing strategies at the Sonoma road course.
His first season racing for Hendrick Motorsports has certainly shown the star capabilities those within the sport and watching from the stands or at home thought he was capable of for a long time, and it appears lesser quality running for Chip Ganassi Racing really held him back over his first six seasons and change in the Cup Series. Larson has won four of the 17 races held thus far this season. He won six races in 223 attempts with Ganassi. There’s a probably chance Larson wins as many or more races this season than he did in his entire run in Ganassi’s No. 42.
There’s a good chance this was always going to happen for Larson. His contract with Ganassi was set to end at the end of the 2020 season and Hendrick Motorsports was always the front-runner to sign him.
But anybody who follows the sport of NASCAR remembers what happened during the sport’s COVID-19 hiatus in April of 2020. While the sport was off on the track for a couple of months it became popular for drivers to compete in online simulation racing that was streaming online (and in some cases on television) and Larson was caught using the “N-word” on a stream when he didn’t realize his mic was on. Larson was quickly fired by Ganassi Racing and indefinitely suspended by NASCAR and ordered him to complete sensitivity training before being allowed to race again.
Larson spent the remainder of 2020 dominating the world of dirt track racing around the country. It seemed like racing again in the biggest series of motorsports in the United States might be a longshot, because of how important sponsorship is within the sport and many companies not wanting to be associated with the driver who casually dropped a serious racial slur.
But Rick Hendrick took a chance on Larson anyway and that chance has paid off in Larson being the current favorite for the 2021 Cup Series championship.
I used to root for Larson’s success, now I find myself not caring about it and frankly a little annoyed by his success so quickly after his return to the sport. I thought’s NASCAR punishment of Larson was appropriate and that it fit in line with similar punishments before in both NASCAR and other professional sports leagues. I didn’t think it warranted anything more serious like an extended suspension or even a lifetime ban. I was, however, a bit surprised that a team and sponsors would touch him as quickly as they did. I hope the sensitivity training Larson underwent has changed his behavior and that he no longer uses racist language in any manner, even if not intended to be racist.
I think my biggest issue with Larson’s success is that so many fans within the sport stood up for him when they should’ve been disappointed in him like I was. And those fans are reveling in his success this season. They’re treating it like Larson shouting a giant “F-you” to NASCAR and any of us who felt Larson deserved what he got from both NASCAR and Ganassi Racing, even if it’s not necessarily a feeling Larson shares – even if he did, he’s probably too smart now to admit it.
I also have a problem that Larson failed upward when seemingly nobody else who’s ever found themselves in a similar position has (at least I can’t recall it ever happening). Larson got fired for problematic language and behavior and ended up with a better job afterward than he ever had before. That’s some privilege.
Larson is having a career year and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be slowing down any time soon, but I just can’t bring myself to root for him. Maybe that’ll change one day. But right now, his massive success is just too soon for me.