Months of speculation as to when or even if driver Kyle Larson would be reinstated by NASCAR has been ended. On Monday, the sanctioning body announced that the driver who was indefinitely suspended for the use of an inappropriate racial slur while participating in an iRacing event during the pandemic shutdown has fulfilled the necessary requirements to end the suspension. He will be allowed back into the sport on January 1, 2021.
After the use of the “N-word” became known publicly, social media pounced on the driver who made his way into the top divisions of NASCAR via the sport’s ‘Drive for Diversity’ program. Because of the overwhelming backlash, Chip Ganassi Racing was forced to release Larson as numerous sponsors sought to disavow themselves from him.
Following his dismissal from the No. 42 Chevrolet, the driver known as “Yung Money” went on a tear through the Sprint Car world winning more than 30 events on the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Spring Car Series and the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions Sprint Car Series as well as other unsanctioned events. He even won a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series feature at Port Royal Speedway in Pennsylvania in August.
It is not at all unrealistic to say that throughout the summer and early fall, Larson has been the biggest ‘needle-mover’ in the racing world as crowds have flocked to dirt track events in which he would be participating.
After mandated sensitivity training and the release of journal entries kept by the driver throughout his suspension, one of the hottest commodities in racing is now cleared to come back into the sport.
“Since April, I’ve done a lot of reflecting,” Larson penned. “I realized how little I really knew about the African-American experience in this country and racism in general. Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago, because it would’ve made me a better person – the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. The kind who makes an effort to understand the hate and oppression it symbolizes and the depth of pain it has caused Black people throughout history and still to this day. It was past time for me to shut up, listen and learn.”
So, where does he go from here?
Some have speculated that the Elk Grove, California native would be a natural fit at Stewart-Haas Racing. His love of Sprint Car racing is shared by that team’s co-owner, Tony Stewart, and one of their rides was left open when it was announced last week that Clint Bowyer would not return in 2021. However, another announcement made on Monday proclaimed that NASCAR Xfinity Series hot shoe Chase Briscoe will wheel the No. 14 Ford next season.
At this point, all of SHR’s four seats are occupied.
Hendrick Motorsports is another destination at which speculation has placed the 28-year-old. With the movement of Alex Bowman from the No. 88 to the vacated No. 48 Chevrolet, there will be a vacancy in that seat at season’s end.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson will step away from full-time racing after the finale in Phoenix in November. However, HMS has always been an organization known for having a very ‘straight and narrow’ reputation with drivers who say and do all the right things so as to rarely draw negative attention to themselves or their organization.
That said, though, perhaps Hendrick would be the best place for Larson to re-enter NASCAR. Because of the company’s clean-cut reputation, a sort of free pass might be given to both the driver and the team knowing that the drivers there are expected to maintain a certain level of decorum.
Wherever Larson ends up, there will be at least some in the non-racing media who will quickly remind those who may not necessarily follow NASCAR very closely just why he was suspended in the first place. So the real key, as it always does in racing, comes down to who will pay the bills.
Some sponsors will no doubt be leery of any backlash they might receive in today’s highly sensitive and accusatory world. It could be that any car owner who brings Larson into the fold will have to take on more of the responsibility for financing the ride than would typically be the case. That, of course, limits the number of opportunities available which again points back to Hendrick.
It’s likely that no announcement will be made before the end of the current NASCAR Cup Series season. But wherever he goes, Kyle Larson will bring a great deal of attention with him. It will be interesting to see how well he and his new team handle that spotlight.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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