Kyle Larson celebrates return with 1st win since suspension

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Larson wasn’t sure he’d ever race again in NASCAR, and if he could, he didn’t know
who would even hire him.
It was Rick Hendrick who took the chance on a driver many believed was radioactive for sponsors. Larson’s
use of a racial slur while participating in an online race last April cost him his job, his reputation
and his ability to attract the corporations that fund a race team.
Hendrick said he’d pay for the car himself because he was that confident that Larson, reformed after
months of self-work, could be redeemed.
On Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Larson raced to his first NASCAR victory since he was reinstated
from a nearly yearlong suspension. He ran just the first four races last season and was hired by
Hendrick Motorsports when NASCAR said the suspension would lift at the start of this year.
"Thanks Mr. H. for believing in me," Larson radioed to boss Rick Hendrick after crossing the
finish line.
He then celebrated his first career win on an intermediate track with smoke-filled burnouts, including
one on the backstretch for friends watching from a motorhome on the hillside above the track. Larson
said he became emotional as he took the white flag but had composed himself by the time he finished his
burnouts.
"I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again," said Larson, who
again thanked Hendrick for taking "a massive chance on me."
Hendrick was both thrilled and surprised by the victory in Larson’s fourth race with his new team. He
figured it would take time for Larson to build a relationship with his new crew chief and find a rhythm
in the No. 5 Chevrolet. There is no practice because of pandemic protocols so Larson is learning in real
time.
"I didn’t really expect it to come this quick because I really thought it would take time to
gel," Hendrick said by phone after the race. "He’s a champion, really, and I am so lucky to
have him."
Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black fulltime driver, was one of the first competitors to congratulate
Larson.
"It meant a lot for Bubba to come to victory lane," Larson said. "He’s always believed in
me. That was special."
Larson’s move to Hendrick was expected to be electric.
Larson is considered one of the top talents in NASCAR but won just six times in six seasons with Chip
Ganassi Racing. Paired with mighty Hendrick, everyone suspected Larson would at last reach his full
potential.
"He got in a great car, he’s a great driver and he’s going to make things happen," runner-up
Brad Keselowski said. "That’s what he does. He’s a wheelman."
Mario Andretti on Twitter called Larson’s victory the most entertaining NASCAR race he’d ever watched and
praised Larson for driving "the race of his life" and Hendrick — "Ol’ Rick knew what he
was doing when he hired him."
The victory gave Hendrick back-to-back victories. William Byron won last week at Homestead-Miami
Speedway, so Hendrick has two of its four drivers locked into the playoffs just one month into the new
season.
It was the first win for crew chief Cliff Daniels, and first for that crew since 2017 with Jimmie
Johnson.
"He knew deep down inside that he could get back to this level," Daniels said of Larson.
Larson’s last victory was Oct. 6, 2019, at Dover.
His seventh career win made him the third driver so far who was not part of the 16-driver playoff field
last season to grab one of the spots. The season opened with three consecutive surprise winners in
Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and then Byron.
Larson isn’t exactly a surprise and Las Vegas was supposed to be the track in which the large teams
finally took control. The 1.5-mile intermediate is the bread-and-butter of the NASCAR schedule and the
top organizations have the depth and resources to dominate the circuits.
The top-nine finishers Sunday all represented NASCAR’s elite teams, with Erik Jones for single-car
Richard Petty Motorsports the only surprise with a 10th-place finish.
Brad Keselowski of Team Penske was second in a Ford and followed by hometown driver Kyle Busch and Denny
Hamlin in Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Ryan Blaney was fifth for Penske and then Martin Truex Jr. and Bell put all four JGR cars in the top
seven. Byron was eighth and defending race winner Joey Logano was ninth for Penske.
UP NEXT
NASCAR heads 300 miles south to Phoenix Raceway, where Chase Elliott won in November for his first Cup
championship. The Phoenix race last March, won by Joey Logano, was NASCAR’s fourth event of the season
and last before the pandemic.