On Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle 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.
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.
Larson 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’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.
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.
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.
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.