Kyle Larson has won a total of six NASCAR Cup Series races out of the 223 starts he has made at the sport’s top level. He has posted a highest finish in the final standings of sixth in 2019. And while there are a number of racers who have toiled longer while having achieved fewer victories, those numbers do not seem overly impressive considering that many argue this driver is among the most talented in the sport. In comparison, Chase Elliott has visited victory lane 11 times in 185 career starts and is coming off of a season in which he earned a championship.
A key difference in the careers of Larson and Elliott, however, is the fact that Larson has driven for Chip Ganassi Racing throughout his time in the NASCAR Cup Series while Elliott has always piloted cars from racing highly regarded Hendrick Motorsports. Many would consider CGR to be on a level just below championship caliber while HMS has long been considered a championship contending powerhouse.
That said, Larson is now in a situation in which the argument of inferior equipment cannot be made on his behalf. Beginning with the Daytona 500 in February, the Elk Grove, CA native will be teammates with Elliott along with Alex Bowman and William Byron driving Chevrolets prepared by Hendrick Motorsports.
After a crazy ride in 2020 that took Larson from his NASCAR ride to the depths of criticism and suspension following his use of a racial slur during an iRacing event then back up to the heights of popularity after an amazing run of almost unprecedented success on the dirt tracks of America, the 28-year-old racer landed in the No. 5 car for Hendrick for the upcoming season. Now it’s up to this driver who won four Cup Series races in 2017 to prove he can take top of the line equipment and run at the front of the field on a consistent basis.
After all, one of his new teammates is the reigning series champion. Further, HMS has more race wins and titles than any other company over the past three decades so the organization is proven.
Larson received a multi-year deal with HMS but one issue facing his team is the fact that, as of this writing, no sponsors have committed to the backing of the No. 5 machine. Even with Rick Hendrick’s supposed deep pockets, no owner wants to fully fund a race team on his own at any level, but particularly in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Performance could be a key early on. Undoubtedly, companies who may wish to place their name on a race car will first want to see what the reaction toward their brand will be if they decide to back a driver who made such a gaffe as Larson did. Winning races and running at the front of the pack during the initial third of the season could very well assure that any attention cast on this driver and team will be of a positive nature which could ease the transition toward full backing.
But back to the primary intent of this piece. In a somewhat miraculous way, Larson now finds himself with one of the top organizations in all of racing following years of competing in what many believe to be lesser equipment. If that is indeed the case, this driver needs to prove that he is worthy of the acclaim for his driving skills that has been given over the years.
One way that Larson can prove that he is in fact worthy of the acclaim he has received is to show that he can win on a variety if tracks. Of his six NASCAR Cup Series victories, half of them have come at the 2-mile Michigan International Speedway and another one at that facility’s sister, Auto Club Speedway, in California.
But again, he will be in better equipment beginning in 2021 than he has been previously during his NASCAR Cup Series career so broadening his areas of success is certainly achievable. And his season spent on dirt very well may have provided new perspectives in terms of car setups and driving styles better suited to a variety of tracks.
Please also consider reading “How much longer can Kevin Harvick keep up this pace?“
Coming into this new season, Kyle Larson has a lot to prove. Can he become a consistent contender for race wins while driving for a top-tier team? Can he persuade potential sponsors to his side by making amends for his well documented error? Can he become good enough on all types of tracks so that he can become week-to-week threat to win and a serious championship player?
The answer to all of these questions is likely yes. At the same time, we have seen a number of these “can’t miss” pairings not work out as planned throughout the history of this sport. As is always the case, only time will truly answer these questions.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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How many #NASCAR Cup Series wins will Kyle Larson have in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car in 2021?
— InsideCircleTrack.com (@ICTwebsite) January 9, 2021