Larson seeks to cap comeback season Sunday with title

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 5, 2021

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

PHOENIX — Kyle Larson has heard that mental toughness is required to win a championship. He has no idea if that’s true — and if it is required, well, then he doesn’t consider himself the championship favorite this weekend.

Toughness, Larson said, makes him think of veteran driver Kevin Harvick. And when he thinks about mental toughness, Larson points to Tony Stewart and the 2011 news conference where Stewart trash-talked Carl Edwards right out of the title.

But Larson? Tough? He’s 5-foot-6 and 135 pounds. When asked what weapon he’d choose in a zombie apocalypse, Larson said he’d take his orders from fellow drivers Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie. He’d let them be in charge.

“People tell me all the time you have to be mentally tough to win the championship, and I feel like enough people hype it up to where you have to act different come playoff time,” Larson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I’m not a tough guy. So I don’t know how to be tough. I don’t know what I’m ‘supposed’ to be doing.”

He is doing just fine.

The 29-year-old Larson has been deemed a future NASCAR champion his entire career. He came to the series as a 19-year-old sprint car sensation and those who know such things said Larson was even better than both Jeff Gordon and Stewart, a pair of drivers who started on dirt and are now NASCAR Hall of Famers.

He didn’t disappoint upon his 2012 arrival, but his Chip Ganassi Racing equipment was rarely fast enough. Larson tallied an underperforming six wins with Ganassi and never raced into the title round.

Still, 2020 was a contract year with Ganassi and Larson he was a highly desired free agent. He likely could have named his price with a new team — right up until he used a racial slur while racing online early in the pandemic.  NASCAR suspended him for the season, Ganassi had to fire him to placate angry sponsors and Larson wasn’t sure if he’d ever be back.

Larson doesn’t use his experience or ability to rebound from his error as a show of mental toughness. He’s a race car driver who wants to race every day, everything else isn’t that deep.

And so here he is headed into Sunday’s race in Arizona in the comeback of all comebacks. He is the star driver of Hendrick Motorsports,  the winningest team in NASCAR that hired him out of his banishment a year ago, and the favorite to close out his nine-win season with a championship.

Larson went through the storm and emerged on the better side.

On the track, he’s been virtually unbeatable. He drives the fastest cars in the sport and has helped turn sponsor into one of the hottest car-buying sites around. His contract was extended through 2023 and the Hendrick Automotive marketing budget will sponsor 35 of Larson’s 36 NASCAR races.

Off the track, he’s matured tremendously. He said he has stepped back from weekly golf games with Denny Hamlin and their pack of friends, and that new free time opened his eyes to how much he was missing at home with his children. He’s stepped up his game at home and at work, and Larson has become such an automatic that he’s the new face of team owner Rick Hendrick’s charitable endeavors.

Hendrick picked Larson from a roster that includes Elliott, the reigning Cup Series champion and NASCAR’s most popular driver, as well as Gordon, who this summer quit the broadcast booth to help run Hendrick Motorsports.

Larson, in his seventh full Cup season, is Hendrick’s new guy.

Asked if Larson has done everything he expected when he gave him the No. 5 Chevrolet for a second chance in NASCAR, Hendrick said: “More. Much more than I would anticipate him doing.”

“He’s been the front of our whole program for feeding people. I don’t know any driver out there as busy as that guy is, that spends as much time trying to do good for other people,” Hendrick said. “If you just look at his track record, what he’s accomplished this year, going and visiting food banks, schools, giving money away, just trying to be a model citizen. … I didn’t ask him to do any of that. He did that on his own.”

Larson spent his season of exile mostly back in the sprint car world, traveling the country in a motorhome with his wife and two children, jumping from track to track, car to car.

His time away gave him a quiet space to work on his own personal growth. He volunteered at the grassroots level to help understand social and economic issues faced by so many.

Larson says he was  naive, not racist, when he said the ‘n word’ in April 2020.