Kyle Larson has enjoyed a breakout 2021 campaign.
His four wins (as of July 14) are more than any other driver and he is tied for the series lead with 11 top-five finishes (Denny Hamlin) and 14 top-10 finishes (Hamlin, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Kevin Harvick). He has led 1,441 laps, nearly double the total of Hamlin’s 770 in second place.
But a year ago, Larson racing in another NASCAR event seemed unfathomable.
Larson was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and suspended by NASCAR in 2020 after he used a racial slur during a Twitch stream, leaving his future in the sport in doubt.
He has since worked to make amends for his mistake, which he said left damage that was likely “unrepairable.”
Here’s a look back on why Larson was suspended, and what he has done since then.
What did Kyle Larson say to get suspended?
In April 2020, during an iRacing event on the game streaming platform Twitch, Larson used a racial slur, saying, “You can’t hear me? Hey, n—” when he did not believe he was speaking to all the drivers.
The backlash was swift. He was suspended by NASCAR, fired by Chip Ganassi Racing and all his sponsors terminated their relationship with him. He apologized publicly for the incident, and apologized to Bubba Wallace, one of the few Black drivers in motorsport, with whom he had several conversations about his use of the word.
“Last night, I made a mistake and said a word that should never, ever be said and there’s no excuse for that,” Larson said on Twitter. “I wasn’t raised that way. It’s just an awful thing to say and I feel very sorry for my family, my friends, my partners, the NASCAR community and especially, the African American community. I understand the damage is probably unrepairable and I own up to that. But I just want to let you all know how sorry I am and I hope everybody is staying safe during these crazy times.”
While Larson remained out of NASCAR for the remainder of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series, he did compete in the World of Outlaws just under a month later after he completed the sensitivity training needed to race in the event.
Larson was not reinstated by NASCAR until October, when the racing body said he could return to the Cup Series on Jan. 1, 2021.
While Larson continued to participate in dirt track racing over the summer, he spent time in other areas to educate himself.
According to a report from the Associated Press, Larson worked with Tony Sanneh, a retired soccer player and founder of the Sanneh Foundation, a nonprofit that works with youth in the metro area of the Twin Cities. Larson worked with Sanneh to deliver and sort food a few weeks before the killing of George Floyd, and then returned not long after to see the site where Floyd was killed and visit areas where there had been protests, per the report.
“I never really realized how privileged I was in the way I grew up,” Larson said in the report. “I never had to really worry about anything and I guess I was naive. I didn’t have a full understanding that there are people struggling with different things on a daily basis. It was very impactful, very moving.”
Larson also returned to the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia, where he had previously spent time volunteering, the report stated, to apologize face-to-face for his use of the slur and to learn from the founder Anthony Martin and his wife, Michelle, about racial inequality in the history of the United States.
The report said Martin found Larson’s efforts to be genuine. They came from him wanting to learn from his mistake, not just an attempt to rebuild his public image.
Larson told NBCSports recently that he continues to work with the Urban Youth Racing School and his own foundation, the Kyle Larson Foundation, which is dedicated to helping youth, families and communities in need.
“There was a lot of stuff I did last year just to educate myself and make myself a better person. I feel like all of last year was humbling. I like that. I like to feel like I’m a normal person just blending in, and that was a good thing to do,” Larson told NBCSports. “That was always important to me to give back and just educate myself.”
Return to NASCAR, sponsors coming back
Talking to NBC Sports, Larson said there was never a time where he didn’t think he’d return to racing, but he did believe a return to NASCAR might not happen. He said it wasn’t until around August or September that he began to think he might be able to get back into the Cup Series.
“I probably do appreciate going to a NASCAR race even more because I didn’t think that I would ever get to do it again,” Larson said.
He continued: “But I’d also kind of expected throughout last year, ‘Well, this is my new life, and I’m going to be racing 100 times a year, and I’m going to love it and make the best of it.’ There’s a lot that you kind of think about. ‘Gosh, am I going to have to homeschool my kids now?’ There’s a lot of sacrifices and stuff with that and traveling up and down the road. It’s a fun lifestyle, but it’s really tough. So I’m thankful for being back in NASCAR.”
NBC Sports had previously reported in October that Henrick Motorsports signed Larson to a multi-year deal not long after he was reinstated by NASCAR.
Now, sponsors are starting to return to 2021’s winningest driver in the Cup Series. NBC Sports’ recent report said that Larson received his Valvoline sponsorship again ahead of the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway. Valvoline CEO Sam Mitchell said that the company felt a “vast majority of people” believe Larson was ready for a second chance, and Mitchell said Valvoline felt like he was making the most of the new opportunity.
Larson said he felt he learned a lot from the past year and that it has helped to make him a smarter and better person today.
“Obviously I wish last year didn’t happen, but in a lot of ways, I’m glad it did because it helped me grow as a person,” Larson said. “It brought me a lot closer to my friends and family and other people I’ve never talked to before, and just helping to educate myself. It’s a great teaching moment for my children as well as other kids who are growing up.
“There was more good that came out of it than bad for sure. … Life was terrible for a few weeks (after being fired and suspended), but as I got through the lowest of it, I realized there was going to be good that comes out of it.”
Hendrick Motorsports announced July 14, 2021, that Larson had been signed to a one-year contract extension through 2023.
The team also announced that its company brand, Hendrick Automotive Group, will be the majority race sponsor for Larson and the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team for 35 races during both the 2022 and 2023 Cup Series seasons. HendrickCars.com will sponsor Larson in any non-NASCAR event.
“The chance to extend my contract with Hendrick Motorsports and have such an awesome sponsor in HendrickCars.com are things I don’t take for granted,” Larson said in the release. “I feel like I’m driving for the best team and the best sponsors in the sport. To know that our on-track performance is having positive business influence off the track is very important because I want to return the incredible support they’ve given me. Everyone at Hendrick Automotive Group has made me feel like part of their team, and it’s exciting to be able to represent a company that loves racing like I do. I feel like we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”
Hendrick Motorsports said in the release that HendrickCars.com has experienced spikes in traffic because of the sponsorship with Larson and the No. 5 team. Five of its top six highest traffic days this year have been related to Larson. Four of those were on Cup Series race days when he won the race or led the most laps.
The extension ensures that Larson will continue racing with teammates Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott at least through the 2022 season.