Long: Kyle Larson’s Cup title caps one of greatest seasons in U.S. racing history
AVONDALE, Ariz. — Kyle Larson exudes cool and calm, but that’s not how he felt when he met with car owner Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon last year about joining Hendrick Motorsports.
After Hendrick said he wanted to have Larson drive one of his cars in 2021, the Hall of Fame team owner asked Larson what he wanted out of the potential deal.
A nervous Larson pondered how to make his request without agitating Hendrick.
“I know how Rick Hendrick feels about dirt racing,” Larson recalled thinking at the time.
Larson’s inner dialogue continued, as he tried to decide how to make his request.
“I hoping I’m not going to shoot myself in the foot right now,” Larson thought at the time.
He told Hendrick: “I’d like to race some dirt races.”
Hendrick didn’t rebuff Larson, but he needed some time.
After consulting with team executives and crew chief Cliff Daniels, Hendrick approved Larson’s request as part of their deal to put Larson in the team’s No. 5 Chevrolet this year.
And so began what has become one of the greatest seasons in U.S. motorsports history by any driver.
“I never thought racing for Hendrick Motorsports that I would get to race a single dirt race in a year, let alone as many as I have this year,” Larson said. “It’s definitely an unbelievable season on so many different levels.” Larson’s season of major wins across multiple disciplines added the NASCAR Cup championship Sunday night at Phoenix Raceway.
He claimed the title with his 10th victory of the season (11th counting the NASCAR All-Star Race). He’s the first driver to reach double digits in Cup wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson won 10 times during his 2007 championship season. Larson’s five wins in the playoffs match Tony Stewart’s record when he won the 2011 crown.
But that’s only part of what Larson did in a year that evokes the achievements of racing icons Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.
Larson won the Chili Bowl Nationals, the most prestigious midget car race in the country. He won the Knoxville Nationals, the premier sprint car race in the country and also won the Kings Royal, another elite event. He won the Prairie Dirt Classic dirt late model race, among the country’s top events for that series.
“In this day and age, I didn’t think it was possible … to win at the highest level against the absolute best in the World of Outlaws, midgets, late models and Cup,” Gordon told NBC Sports in Victory Lane.
For emphasis, Gordon repeated himself.
“I didn’t think that was possible for anybody to do, and he’s proven me wrong,” Gordon said.
Maybe there’s more Larson can do.
“I hope he gets the opportunity to feel what a Formula 1 car is like,” Gordon said. “I think he can get in anything.”
Larson will attend the F1 race Abu Dhabi in December, but he has a few other dirt races to run before then. Larson’s cross-country trips with his family to dirt tracks this year often featured victory lane celebrations and endeared him to fans. When Larson climbed from his Cup car Sunday night near the start/finish line, the sellout crowd at Phoenix Raceway roared.
“Kyleobviously is an incredible and special talent,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “We really haven’t seen anyone like him in decades, maybe ever, if you consider what he did here and what he’s done in dirt and other forms of motorsports all year long. He’s a wheelman.
“I think the opportunity for us to bridge the dirt community and other grassroots racing is really, really important for us. He’s going to be phenomenal champion for us.”
Among Larson’s legion of fans are Stewart and Andretti.
Stewart tweeted his congratulations Sunday night, calling Larson the “best race car driver I’ve ever seen.”
Andretti, the only driver to win an Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500 and Formula 1 championship, told NBC Sports before the playoffs started that Larson “just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”
In a video played for Larson on NBC before the race, Andretti praised Larson’s versatility in winning on a variety of different NASCAR tracks and noted that “on the way to the (NASCAR) track on Saturday night, he’ll win on some dirt track somewhere.
“He’s amazing, and let’s see if he can finish it off with a championship.”
Larson was in position to do so until his car’s handling started to fade. With 50 laps to go, he was last among the four championship drivers.
His race changed when a caution on Lap 283 for debris brought the leaders to pit road. Larson entered fourth and exited in the lead.
But this wasn’t a position many thought he would be in leading up to this race.
NBC Sports analyst Dale Jarrett, a former champion, noted that despite Larson’s success this season, he wasn’t the overwhelming favorite to win the title. “A lot of people didn’t choose him (to win) this weekend because they said he had never been in this position before,” Jarrett said, noting Larson’s first time in the Cup title race. “He might not have the mindset. There was never a doubt inmy mind. If he didn’t win it, it wasn’t because he didn’t have that ability to get it done in the biggest moment.”
Some chose Martin Truex Jr. to win because he won at Phoenix earlier this year. Others saw Chase Elliott repeating. And there were those who thought this was the year Denny Hamlin would win his first championship. That’s who Larson faced when the green waved for the final time. He had Hamlin on his inside, Truex behind him and Elliott on the inside of the second row.
“The greats - and when I say it, I think, that’s a very small percentage - they know how, in the toughest moments, when the heat is on, how to rise up and pull something off that others aren’t capable,” Gordon said.
“You have the guys that are in the position, but they make a mistake. I feel like he actually gets better in those moments. You saw him in those closing moments. Truex put so much pressure on him and he never cracked.”
While the pit crew’s work was key to give Larson the lead, the adjustments Daniels orchestrated helped keep the No. 5 in front. Daniels credited all the dirt racing Larson did this season.
“I know Mr. (Hendrick) talked about earlier that having him not race (as many dirt events) during the playoffs was a little bit of a safety factor for us, but honestly I was kind of worried for the opposite, because he raced all season long during the week,” Daniels said.
“We were Turn 3 at Pocono away from winning five weekends in row, it would have been the fourth points race but five weekends in a row and he was racing two or three nights a week then.I was getting so much information from him about himself, like he was up front every night, and if he got beat by somebody on a restart, he would tell me what he did wrong.
“And it would help me learn what he needed to look for out of himself and out of the car, whether dirt or pavement or any series moving forward. So that information to me was really invaluable because I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.”
All that information went into Daniels’ final pit call of the season.
Then it was up to Larson.
For now, he’ll enjoy what he’s accomplished this year with his NASCAR title and wins across various disciplines.
“I understand the season that we’ve had,” Larson said, ”but I don’t think you really can appreciate it until you hear of other generations talking — that are younger than me talking about a season like I’ve had.
“I think I’m just a very lucky guy who gets to race in the best race cars of all the series that I get to run in. I’m in the best seat in the Cup Series. I’m in the best seat in a sprint car. I’m in the best seat in a late model. I’m in the best seat in a midget, whether it be with Chad Boat or my old car.
“I think it takes a lot of hard work to get those opportunities and a lot of hard work to take advantage of it. But without good people around you and being able to be in good race cars, I would never get to have a season like I’ve had.”