Kyle Larson is Simply the Best Thing Going in NASCAR Right Now

·7 min read
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Larson Is NASCAR's 'Modern Day A.J. Foyt and Chris Graythen - Getty Images
  • All-time greats Richard Petty won 200 races, Jimmie Johnson has won 83 (that’s not likely to change), and Dale Earnhardt won 76.

  • Kyle Larson already has 21 career victories, 15 of them since returning to NASCAR in 2021.

  • That’s more than twice as many as Chase Elliott (7), Joey Logano and William Byron (6), and Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch (5) have won in each of their last 85 starts.

It’s probably too soon to say Kyle Larson will someday join Richard Petty, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt on the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR drivers. After all, the current Final Four winner-take-all playoff format means one hiccup at Phoenix could dash a team’s championship hopes, no matter how worthy it had been.

So, while winning seven titles seems a stretch, it’s not too soon to say Larson is the best thing in NASCAR right now, an unofficial title he might hold all year.

Consider that in a recent eight-day stretch the 30-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver won an Xfinity race at Darlington, a Craftsman Truck race at North Wilkesboro, and the Cup All-Star race at North Wilkesboro. Maybe that doesn’t compare to Kyle Busch’s three-series weekend sweep at Bristol in 2010 and 2017, but it’s still pretty impressive in its own way.

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Kyle Larson, left, is carving out a career that one day could be compared favorably to that of all-time great Jimmie Johnson.Sean Gardner - Getty Images

Larson’s resume would look even better if not for two late-race incidents that almost certainly cost him victories early this month.

On May 7, second-running Denny Hamlin aggressively knocked Larson aside as Larson led on the last lap in Kansas. (Larson managed to finish second). A week later, at Darlington, the day after winning the Xfinity race, Larson had a comfortable lead until a late caution bunched field. When he and Ross Chastain crashed on the restart, what seemed a certain victory turned into a 20th-place finish.

But back to that image of Larson on the Mount Rushmore of drivers:

Petty won 200 races, Johnson has won 83 (that’s not likely to change), and Earnhardt won 76 before dying at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. Larson already has 21 career victories, 15 of them since returning to NASCAR in 2021. That’s more than twice as many as Chase Elliott (7), Joey Logano and William Byron (6), and Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch (5) in their last 85 starts.

Petty, Johnson, and Earnhardt each won seven Cups. Larson has won one, in 2021, his first year with owner Rick Hendrick and crew chief Cliff Daniels. Given the consistent strength of the Daniels/Larson pairing, though, that number figures to grow. As much as anybody on the tour, that team is a pre-race favorite almost every weekend.

Larson’s recent victory at North Wilkesboro was his third in seven All-Star starts, each at a different venue. He won in 2019 at Charlotte for owner Chip Ganassi, in 2021 at Texas for Hendrick, and again last weekend for Hendrick. He’s the fourth driver with at least three such victories, trailing only four-time winner Johnson and tied with fellow three-timers Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Those drivers won theirs at Charlotte, site of 35 of the first 36 All-Star races.

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Kyle Larson celebrates his win at the 2023 NASCAR All-Star Race.Jared C. Tilton - Getty Images

“He’s on top of the ladder right now and has been for much of the past few years,” said Billy Sawyer, who spent most of his 75 years watching racing from his family’s former workplace, Richmond Raceway. “I saw Junior Johnson in his prime, on dirt and on asphalt, and this Larson kid is as close to him as anybody. Sort of like David Pearson, who was good on dirt and asphalt, too. But right now, there’s nobody who can run with Larson.”

Like Sawyer, former driver Brett Bodine has seen just about everybody who’s ever been anybody in Cup. He dares speak of Larson in the same breath as three legendary icons.

“When Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Cup, I thought we were watching the greatest Cup driver ever,” Bodine said. “When I’m watching Kyle Larson now, I think we’re watching the greatest driver in the United States. That’s because he beats the best of the best in every series he runs, dirt or asphalt, stock car or open-wheel winged car. Whatever he’s in, he’s usually the best. I feel strongly about how good he is. He’s our modern-day A.J. Foyt and Tony Stewart.”

Long-time Cup team owner Eddie Wood finds comparisons difficult. “He’s as good right now as anybody,” he said, “but it’s hard to compare different times in the sport. David Pearson won 43 races with (Wood Brothers Racing) after he turned 37. He won his first championship when he was 31 and the other two when he was 33 and 34. It’ll be interesting to see what Larson (he turns 31 next month) has done when he gets into his late 30s. But for right now … yeah, he’s pretty good.”

One can only imagine how Larson’s life would be today if not for April 12, 2020. On that night, during livestreaming of an iRacing event, he uttered a despicable racial slur that everyone heard. Ganassi and NASCAR immediately suspended him, and NASCAR ordered sensitivity training. When several sponsors distanced themselves, Ganassi fired Larson and hired former champion Matt Kenseth for his No. 42 Chevrolet. Larson spent most of 2020 under the mainstream radar, winning countless open-wheel, dirt-track races.

After reviewing his rehabilitation, NASCAR reinstated Larson in October of 2020. Hendrick snatched him several weeks later with a contract for 2021 and beyond. With Daniels atop the pit box, the No. 5 Chevrolet won at Las Vegas in March, the first of 10 victories during its unlikely championship season.

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Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels form NASCAR’s top 1-2 punch.Chris Graythen - Getty Images

There were nine more points victories that year, plus the All-Star race in Fort Worth. The last of the 10 came in November at Phoenix, where the crew pulled off a breathtaking 12.345-second pit stop to secure the race lead, the victory, and the Cup. The late-race stop under caution vaulted Larson from fourth to first, an advantage he maintained over the final 28 laps.

Now, a full season-plus later, he continues to do and say all the right things.

“I think about it all the time, how fortunate I am and where my life and career could have gone in 2021,” he said after dominating Sunday night’s $1 million-to-win All-Star race. “Yeah, 2021, could have gone many different directions. Thankfully, Rick took a chance and I am forever grateful. And the timing was right. Their equipment was super good. They had kind of struggled a little bit up to the middle of 2020, then Chase (Elliott) was able to win the championship.

“I wouldn’t be able to accomplish any of this without great teams, and I’m super fortunate to be able to race with great car owners, crew chiefs, in all forms of racing I do. There’s not a time I go to a race track where I don't feel like I’m in the best equipment with the best team around me. It starts with that.”

Could he have ever envisioned this comeback in 2020, when his big-time career seemed in jeopardy?

“Before 2021, I guess I always thought I could do it,” he said of winning in Cup. “I thought I had the talent to win here. I just didn’t know if it was me or the equipment (because) I wasn’t having success frequently enough, like I was having in the dirt stuff. Once I got picked up at Hendrick but before we ran our first race, I was confident… but I never thought I’d have the stats we do to this point.

“But once I got to run some races in 2021, I was like, ‘okay, I’m a good stock car racer, I can do this.’ It's been a fun road to this point (but) we have a lot left to accomplish. I hope to be around for a long time and creep up on what (former HMS stars and multi-time champions) Jimmie and Jeff have done.”

Creep up? Hardly. Bust up through there is more like it.