LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle 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.
On Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 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.
“Thanks Mr. H. for believing in me,” Larson radioed to boss Rick Hendrick after crossing the finish line.
He 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 said he became emotional as he took the white flag but had composed himself by the time he finished his burnouts.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” said Larson, who again thanked Hendrick for taking “a massive chance on me.”
Hendrick was both thrilled and surprised by the victory in Larson’s fourth race with his new team. He figured it would take time for Larson to build a relationship with his new crew chief and find a rhythm in the No. 5 Chevrolet. There is no practice because of pandemic protocols so Larson is learning in real time.
“I didn’t really expect it to come this quick because I really thought it would take time to gel,” Hendrick said by phone after the race. “He’s a champion, really, and I am so lucky to have him.”
Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black fulltime driver, was one of the first competitors to congratulate Larson.
“It meant a lot for Bubba to come to victory lane,” Larson said. “He’s always believed in me. That was special.”
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.
“He got in a great car, he’s a great driver and he’s going to make things happen,” runner-up Brad Keselowski said. “That’s what he does. He’s a wheelman.”
Mario Andretti on Twitter called Larson’s victory the most entertaining NASCAR race he’d ever watched and praised Larson for driving “the race of his life” and Hendrick — “Ol’ Rick knew what he was doing when he hired him.”
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.
It was the first win for crew chief Cliff Daniels, and first for that crew since 2017 with Jimmie Johnson.
“He knew deep down inside that he could get back to this level,” Daniels said of Larson.
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.