Kyle Larson finishes first after getting a second chance

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Kyle Larson is a deserving NASCAR champion.

Few have been more dominant in a brutally long 10-month season. Ten victories and 2,581 laps led – the most since the inception of the 36-race season – are important footnotes in a championship that will be defined by so much more than a fast car.

A perfect pit stop at the Phoenix Raceway Sunday catapulted Larson from fourth to first with 28 laps remaining. With that advantage, he did what he’s done all year – run away from the field. Sunday’s win said a lot about racing and race. And while he’s never deflected blame for making a racial slur during a live stream of a virtual race last year, he’s worked tirelessly since to be a better person.

Banished by NASCAR after only four races in 2020, Larson earned a second chance by growing past his indiscretion, and he did with the backdrop of one of the most difficult times in American history when racial and cultural divisions ran deep.

Larson put himself above all that. He started a foundation to help families in need. He wanted to become a role model for children from all different backgrounds. His “Drive for 5” program started with $500,000 of his own money, and he vowed to chip in $5 for every lap led and $5,000 for every top-10 finish. That added up to $612,905.

In addition, Larson became a volunteer with the Urban Youth Racing School, which encourages STEM-related careers for children in the Philadelphia area.

But most important, Larson taught everyone there is value in redemption. Hundreds of families and children now are served because Larson chose to mature emotionally and spiritually.

Now his message will be delivered from the championship pulpit.

“Eighteen months ago, I didn’t think that I was ever going to be in a Cup car again. Strapping in for the Daytona 500 didn’t even seem real, let alone winning the championship,” he said.

“No, it’s definitely been a journey, a roller coaster. But I’m very thankful for my second chance and every opportunity I’ve been given in these last 18 months.

Life is a crazy thing, and you’ve just got to stay positive through it all, and everything will hopefully work out for you.”

The enormity of his comeback hit him before the race started. He cried before driver introductions, during the pre-race ride-around and during his warm-up laps. By the time he crossed the finish line, he was a mess.

“With the pressure of this race and everything that was on the line, to win this championship – every one of these fans made me feel it,” he said. “I was trying to tell myself to just chill out, stop tearing up. I make fun of my dad all the time for crying, and I’m worse than he is.

“But [Sunday] was more tears than normal, I think, just because of the significance of the event, of the journey that it took to get here.”

Larson was lucky. Most, no matter how talented, don’t get a do-over. Car owner Rick Hendrick was one of the few with the resources, compassion and influence to bring Larson back. Hendrick found sponsorship for 12 of 36 regular-season races, so he filled the void by putting his own HendrickCars.com sponsorship stickers on the car.

“I never thought I was taking a risk. I mean, I know how good he is,” Hendrick said. “I’m just fortunate we were able to get him, and man, what a wheelman he is. Ten races won, 11 with the all-star race. It’s unbelievable.”

The championship is just a part of the celebration. He watched Larson grow into a person who inspired change and growth. He watched him become a winner – both on and off the track.

“You know, the more I was around Kyle, the more I appreciated the kind of person he was in and all the things he was doing out in charity,” Hendrick said. “I think last week or the week before, he visited three food banks and gave out a ton of money.

“I got to know the person. I knew the racer but got to spending time with him and his family and how dedicated he was to doing the right thing. He’s done everything he could to get back into the sport and [being] something we’re all proud of – and he’s proud of. He’s been more talented than I thought he was, and he’s been an unbelievable person. He’s got a big heart, and he’s done a lot of things that nobody in here knows about. He doesn’t try to get publicity, and he’s just a good human being, and he’s got a tremendous amount of talent.”

An inordinate amount of talent.

During his break from NASCAR, he won 46 dirt races, including the prestigious Chili Bowl. Tony Stewart, who knows what it takes to be a champion, has been Larson’s biggest fan. On Sunday, he called Larson the “best race car driver I’ve ever seen.”

And a deserving NASCAR champion.

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