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2021 Season in Review: Kyle Larson

Kyle Larson holds off the other three Championship 4 challengers Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliott to win the NASCAR Cup season finale at Phoenix Raceway and with it his first career series championship.

CREW CHIEF: Cliff Daniels

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports

POINTS: 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Champion

WINS: 10 (Las Vegas I, Charlotte, Sonoma, Nashville Superspeedway, Watkins Glen, Bristol II, Charlotte Roval, Texas, Kansas, Phoenix II)

LAPS LED: 2,581

TOP 5s: 20

TOP 10s: 26

QUALIFIED FIRST: 12 times (Bristol Dirt, pole award at Charlotte, Sonoma, Pocono I, Michigan, Daytona II, Richmond II, Las Vegas II, Texas II, Kansas II, Martinsville II, pole award at Phoenix II)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: After returning to NASCAR this season following his suspension for much of 2020 due to using a racial slur in an e-sports event, winning the 2021 Cup Series title was not “redemption” for Kyle Larson.

Redemption for Larson was always about becoming a better human being.

It’s a never-ending process for everyone. But by all accounts, Larson has embraced that process. He has indeed come a long way.

Let’s hope he keeps going.

On the track, Larson was simply a cut above driving for Hendrick Motorsports - the team that gave him his second chance at NASCAR’s top level.

Larson became the first driver to claim 10 wins and the Cup title since Hendrick legend Jimmie Johnson pulled that feat off in 2007. Additionally, Larson’s 2,581 laps led were the most by a driver since yet another Hendrick legend, Jeff Gordon, paced 2,610 laps during his first championship season in 1995.

Somewhere in all that dominance, he netted a cool $1 million by winning the NASCAR All-Star Race.

Then there’s his exploits in the dirt-track world, where he earned “crown jewel” victories at the Chili Bowl Nationals, Kings Royal and Knoxville Nationals.

But lest we forget, racing is a team sport. Larson needed his No. 5 pit crew to come through for him in the Cup season finale at Phoenix. And that’s what they did, crushing an 11.8-second pit stop under caution to put Larson in the lead ahead of the final restart with 24 laps to go.

Larson did the rest, holding off fellow title contenders Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott to win the race and his first Cup title.

WHAT WENT WRONG: To think, he could’ve had more than 10 wins this season.

Larson clinched a playoff spot early with his win at Las Vegas. But he still had multiple setbacks and near-misses before rounding into his championship-caliber form.

In March at Atlanta, Larson rolled the field by leading a race-high 269 laps – only to have Ryan Blaney catch and pass him for the win with nine laps to go. The following week, he was a heavy favorite for the Bristol Dirt race, but an early crash knocked him out of contention (he continued and finished 29th).

Something more bizarre occurred in April at Talladega, when he lost his engine three laps in. The reason: Poor oversight. A piece of sheet metal surrounding the radiator was not removed before the race, leading the motor to overheat and blow up.

Then came May. At Kansas, he led a race-high 132 laps but had the win slip away from him during a rash of late restarts. That led into three consecutive runner-up finishes at Darlington, Dover (where he led a race-high 263 laps) and Circuit of the Americas.

WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2022: Following up one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history won’t be easy with the new Next Gen car debuting in the Cup Series. But Larson’s talent is undisputed, and it feels like it’s only a question of when he and the No. 5 team will unlock the Next Gen’s full potential. Once that happens, expect to see Larson a lot in Victory Lane - and perhaps, again racing for a title in Phoenix.