When he is given the all-clear on his reinstatement on New Year’s Day 2021, Kyle Larson will begin a new future with one of the NASCAR Cup Series‘ top organisations. On Wednesday, Hendrick Motorsports announced the once-suspended driver will join the team for the 2021 season, driving a revived #5 car.
It has been a tumultuous 2020 for Larson, who began the year as one of the sport’s brightest stars before his career came crashing down in the spring following his indefinite suspension for using the N-word in an iRacing stream. Since then, he has taken steps to redeem himself, including attending sensitivity training and participating in diversity efforts. He completed his mandatory training in May, but stayed out of the stock car world’s attention as his on-track activity in the meantime came on dirt, where he is enjoying one of the greatest seasons by a dirt track racer ever.
Larson finally returned to the public spotlight in October with an essay detailing his remorse and efforts to educate himself. He filed for reinstatement later in the month, which was formally granted a few days later. While he will have to continue taking training courses and other related matters, he will be formally cleared to return to racing on 1 January 2021.
“Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program. More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners and NASCAR. Kyle and I have had many, many conversations leading up to today’s announcement. I’m confident about what’s in his heart and his desire to be a champion in all aspects of his life and career. Kyle has done important work over the past six months, and Hendrick Motorsports is going to support those continued efforts.”
Incidentally, Hendrick Motorsports had long been considered a possible landing spot for Larson even before his suspension. During his rise through NASCAR’s ranks, many compared him to fellow California native and Hendrick co-owner Jeff Gordon, whom Larson idolised growing up, and the retirement of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson seemed to open the door for him in 2021. As it would turn out, Alex Bowman, who drives Hendrick’s #88 car, will take over Johnson’s #48 in 2021, while the #88 is renumbered to #5. While the #88 has been used by Hendrick since 2008, it is more associated with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired after 2017.
The #5, last used in 2017 with Kasey Kahne, holds sentimental value for Hendrick as that was the first number he used when he launched the team in 1984. Among the car’s drivers were Geoff Bodine, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Kyle Busch, Casey Mears, and Mark Martin, with Labonte winning the championship in 1996. It was replaced with the #24 for William Byron in 2018, with the original #24 becoming Chase Elliott‘s #9.
“Hendrick Motorsports is a championship organization that has set a high bar for performance and for how its drivers represent the team and its partners,” Larson stated. “My goal is to win races, be a great teammate, continue my personal efforts to grow, and hold myself to that high standard personally and professionally. Making the absolute most of this platform and the opportunity in front of me is my focus. I know what’s expected of me and what I expect of myself, on and off the track.
“Mr. Hendrick is one of the people who extended a hand to me over the past six months. Our initial conversations were not about racing. He cares about me as a person and wants to see me succeed beyond driving. I can’t put into words how grateful I am for the commitment, the faith and the confidence from him and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports.”
Larson, a six-time Cup race winner, will be the oldest driver in the Hendrick stable at 28. Bowman (27) is a two-time Cup winner, Elliott (24) has won nine races, and Byron (22) scored his maiden premier series victory at the 2020 regular season finale. With this youth movement going, Hendrick added he is “excited about our roster of young talent. We have a team that is built to win races and compete for championships for years to come.”