Kyle Larson is in uncharted territory. The 2021 racing season is proving to be Larson’s most impressive, not only from his NASCAR success with Hendrick Motorsports, but from his continued dominance on the dirt racing side of his career. From what looked impossible some 16 months ago, Larson is the most talked about oval track racer in the United States and is shattering even the boldest of expectations from the moment the season began. Naturally, all this success has made Larson a constant talking point among fans and media alike. Comparisons to racing legends have been plentiful and many of them make a fair argument. But Kyle Larson, and specifically what he’s done within the last year and a half is beyond comparison. Attempting to do so besmirches his journey as a person and as a race car driver. All I ask is for you to keep an open mind and allow me a few moments to explain exactly what I mean. Let’s take it from the top and explore what brought Larson to this moment.
If you’re anything close to a regular race fan, you don’t need me to tell you that Kyle Larson has been a big name in racing for several years. Coming up from the dirt racing world into NASCAR, Larson made a name for himself as a stock car driver with a local short tracker’s pedigree. Sprint cars, pavement late models, and seemingly anything with wheels, Larson had reputation with fans before he ever made his first NASCAR cup series start. Driving for Chip Ganassi, Larson’s career had an old school feel to it where he could race some short track events during the week and still show up for the big corporate show on Sunday and make it work out for everyone. While the dirt racing was nice to see, it had the “hobby” feel to it as most of us knew that NASCAR was his true occupation. After compiling 6 Cup wins with Chip Ganassi, the 2020 Cup season was to serve as a free agent push for Larson. Likely the hottest NASCAR free agent since Dale Earnhardt Jr, Larson was surely going to be among the highest paid drivers in the sport and be competing for championships with more regularity. As with most everything else in 2020 however, nothing went as planned.
After uttering a racial slur on a hot mic on a driver’s broadcast of an exhibition iRacing event during the “Covid Break” of the 2020 NASCAR season, Larson was duly fired from Ganassi and suspended indefinitely by NASCAR. Before even considering the long road back to a place like NASCAR, and what that would entail, Larson was presented with a circumstance that may never have come up before in professional auto racing. For better or worse, the world of dirt track racing remained open to Larson, and for the first time in years, it presented itself in a new way. What was once a steppingstone turned later into a hobby, was now the primary means of survival for a driver whose future was quite uncertain.
This is where I think the comparisons to other drivers back here in 2021 stand without merit. No one has ever been in a situation quite like Larson, a driver at the top of his career suddenly needing to return to his roots for purposes of necessity. It’s never happened like this before, and given the unacceptable nature of his error, shouldn’t be compared to anyone else. When Tony Stewart raced dirt during his NASCAR tenure, it was to build an empire. He owned the cars, he owned a track, he owned a series. The passion of Smoke’s drive is unquestioned, but his reasons were not revolving around the $5,000-$10,000 purses up for grabs to the race winner. Jeff Gordon may have a comparative level of talent, but his commitment to NASCAR was total. We’ll never know if he could have balanced top level stock car racing with a dirt background. Older guard drivers like Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt provide a welcome similar vibe to Larson’s, but in their era dirt was still a part of the regular series in which those drivers earned their living. For the balance of 2020 and into 2021, Larson’s drive was for something different.
Of course, winning dirt races wasn’t new to Larson, but there was a clear change to how he approached the matter while otherwise unemployed. Seeking the highest dollar races available, most commonly in dirt sprint cars, Larson went on a tear that may never have been out of reach for an operation like Larson’s, but was accomplished seemingly with the greatest of ease. This was a man’s livelihood, providing not only for himself but his young family as well. Every marquee event seemed to go Larson’s way and the dollars and cents of the race victories looked to be sustainable revenue for a driver in this unique position. Coupled with a comparatively quiet off-track reflection and engagement with minority communities there was tangible evidence that Larson was coming back to NASCAR and would be welcomed by most to do so. After signing with Hendrick Motorsports, easily for a fraction of the salary he likely would have commanded otherwise, his dirt commitment stayed just as strong in 2021. Sprints, late models, midgets, nothing seems off the table now and big money victories appear as Larson’s own privilege to win or lose as he sees fit. No other driver has bounced back in such a way and given the circumstances we should be glad and hopeful it’s the only one of its kind.
The last, and perhaps most important point of all this, is that Kyle Larson provides a range of emotion that’s never been seen before in the racing world. Some of it good, and some of it equally as uncomfortable. No one should ever be criticized for staying off the Larson bandwagon, but a great deal of people have found resolve with what he’s accomplished both off the track and on. You might have noticed that none of the pictures in this article are from any professional publication. All the pictures were submitted by amateurs, or fans that have seen Larson within the last 24 months. Larson’s return to dirt was seen by some as a sort of exile. While I disagree, the impact that he’s had in that area is astounding. Very very VERY few people would ever actually feel good about the unacceptable decision Larson made last April, but most fans have found something in the driver’s story since then that they can hitch their wagon to…and you can see it in the pictures they take.
Maybe it’s his family, or his quiet demeanor compared to most other dirt superstars, or his unwavering support of fans, or just an admiration of absolute dominance. In any event, there’s something that at least tempts the American race fan to pay attention. A man who’s not even 30 years old has made more of an impact on the American oval racing world, for better or worse, than some hall of fame drivers have throughout their entire careers. Larson’s failures are just important as his triumphs, and each should stand on their own footing without a needless comparison to others. A cautionary tale, an earnest exploration of self-improvement, a redemption story forged from feet of clay. Every race fan is going to remember Larson in a different way. We’ve never seen a story like Kyle Larson’s, and he’d probably be the first to tell you that we should never hope to see it play out this way again. Kyle Larson is beyond compare.
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