Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Larsson comes full circle with Hendricks in winning first title

Nashville, Tenn. (AP) — Kyle Larson was 18 years old and wanted to jump from dirt racing to the big leagues when he went to a meeting with childhood idol Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports.

“I was like the star was hit a little bit,” Larson recalled. “We were going to his office and I turned the corner and his supermodel wife was standing there, and she was 7 feet tall and beautiful, and I was like ‘Oh, my god, this is crazy’.”

And then Gordon broke Larson’s heart.

“We sat in his office, and Jeff Gordon is such an awesome race car driver and someone I’ve seen since I was a little kid,” Larson said. “Everyone knows I love dirt racing, and he’s like, ‘You really need to get out of the dirt cars. They’re going to teach you bad habits.'”

Larson was crushed when he left the meeting and ended up just down North Carolina Road at Chip Ganassi Racing, where the owner did not care for Larson’s extra-curricular race and signed him on the spot. Larsson spent more than seven seasons driving for Ganassi, until he was fired from four races in 2020 for using a racial slur. He was suspended by NASCAR for almost an entire year, but when it was dropped, Larson’s tour with Gordon and Hendricks came full circle.

Larson got his second chance at NASCAR with the team, and Rick Hendricks and Gordon changed their minds about Larson’s dirt racing. If it kept him sharp and didn’t deter him from his job as No. 5 Chevrolet driver, Hendricks would allow Larsson to race in the other series.

“When you talk to a driver and you know in his heart that it’s really important to him, I said to him ‘Look, I don’t want you to get hurt,'” Rick Hendricks said. “He said, ‘It makes me better. It keeps me sharp. I think it helps me in the cup car.’ So I agreed to let him do it.”

The agreement led to Larsson’s first Cup Series title – and a record-expanding 14th for Ric Hendricks – and one of the most impressive seasons in at least a decade. Larson won 10 races, the $1 million All-Star Race, and broke Gordon’s 20-year mark for most laps in a season.

“I joke with Jeff about his visit to Hendricks that day,” Larson said. “It all worked out in the end. I got to gain experience and they didn’t have to pay for it before it reached me.”

Larson speaks Thursday night ahead of the annual season-ending awards ceremony for NASCAR in Nashville. The event was canceled last year due to the pandemic after Hendrick driver Chase Elliott won his first title, so the party will be a Hendricks celebration of back-to-back championships.

Larson enjoys the VIP treatment and noted NASCAR provided both security and car service to get her around Nashville. And as he fulfilled his pre-party obligations, his son Owen was running outside the hotel as Larson’s mother-in-law tried to burn off some of the 6-year-old’s energy.

Owen Larson celebrates his father’s first NASCAR title as if he’s the real winner; At a parade in Larson’s hometown of Elk Grove, Calif., two weeks ago, Owen rode a large shopping cart while his parents and younger sister waved to fans from the back seat of a convertible.

Initially terrified that he would be embarrassed by the low turnout for his homecoming, Larson instead organized a celebration the family would treasure forever.

“The turnout shocked me, it was much bigger than I thought it would be, and Audrey and Owen had a blast,” Larson said. “You know, Owen thinks he’s famous. He jokes with me that he’s more famous than me.”

The crowd will disagree on Lower Broadway for Wednesday night’s burnout contest. Larsson received a raucous cheer during the competition, and with his father riding as a passenger, he approved Larsson’s signing ceremony in Dirt Racing: Mike Larsson held a steering wheel outside the window as Larsson Dazzling fans line up with entertainment from Nashville five-in-depth Stripe

He says he doesn’t feel any different as a champion, and apart from all the celebrations, life is as usual for a humble driver who has just made a remarkable comeback. Nevertheless, after stopping at Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia next week, Larson and wife, Caitlin, will head to Abu Dhabi to participate in their first Formula One race. It’s the title-deciding season-ender, and Larson was pretty excited to participate as NASCAR champion.

Larsen spent almost the entire 2020 traveling the country in a motorhome as the family moved from small rural track to small rural track during his suspension. But he’s now roaming two worlds — the champion of America’s top motorsports series and the grassroots racer who still prefers three nights in the dirt at Knoxville Raceway in Iowa to, say, Nashville Speedway.

Ultimately, Hendrick Motorsports reversed the policy that had barred Larsson from taking a job with the team in 2012. Larson was allowed to run as much as he wanted—he cut his schedule during NASCAR’s 10-week playoffs—and all of his Hendricks teammates were allowed to play in other series.

He’s on top of the racing world right now – at just 29 years old – but he doesn’t believe he’ll understand what it means for several decades.

“I understand the season that we’ve had. But I don’t think you can really appreciate it until you hear other generations talking, who are generations younger than me like I did for a season. talked about,” Larson said. “I guess I’m just a very lucky person to get to race in the best race cars.”

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More AP Auto Racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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