In April 2020, Kyle Larson uttered a racial slur that all but ended his NASCAR Cup Series career. Fired by Chip Ganassi Racing, the sport gave him an indefinite suspension, one that lasted six months while his off-track reputation was left in tatters. No sponsor was willing to touch Larson's toxic brand, leaving him out in the cold ... except for one car owner willing to roll the dice on 2021.
Rick Hendrick talked it over, then took a chance on picking up the pieces. On Sunday, he was rewarded with his 14th Cup championship as an owner, Larson ending a record-breaking year in victory lane at Phoenix Raceway. The 29-year-old's stats will stand the test of time as some of the best of NASCAR's playoff era, collecting 10 wins, including four of the last five races, and 2,581 laps led.
"I didn't even think I'd be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago," Larson said, tears streaming down his face after the checkered flag. "To win a championship is crazy."
It was also a team effort after Larson's title bid appeared in doubt during the Championship 4 finale. Running fourth with 30 laps remaining, the final caution flew for a piece of debris that came off David Starr's Toyota. The No. 5 team took advantage of the first pit stall and an easy out, pulling off a home run stop to get their driver out in front ahead of Martin Truex Jr. Larson never looked back, winning the title over Truex, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott.
"They are the true winners of this race," Larson exclaimed of his crew. "They are the true champions."
So completes the turnaround of a man who was once one of NASCAR's big disappointments. Even before the off-track incident last year, Larson was dogged by bad luck and seeming indifference toward stock car racing. Once declaring he'd be in the World of Outlaws full-time by age 40, critics wondered whether he had the focus to be a NASCAR champion.
The stats, by and large, backed that up through Larson's first seven years in the series. Earning only six wins, four in one season (2017) his career was marked by missed opportunities and costly DNFs.
"I had heard the stories that he couldn't close," Hendrick said. "That he was fast and he would run near the wall and he'd wreck."
But Hendrick signed Larson anyway, putting up the money through Hendrick Automotive Group knowing no primary sponsor would want to touch him. Paired with Jimmie Johnson's former crew chief, Cliff Daniels, the pair had instant chemistry, winning in their fourth race together at Las Vegas.
Just a few months later, they were in victory lane again. And again. And again. But no amount of success was ever enough for Daniels, pushing so hard he didn't sleep before any race this season.
"Probably never will," Daniels said of his constant anxiety. "As long as he's my driver. With Kyle Larson as your driver, you're the weak link, not him. That's the way I see it."
Neither one should sell themselves short, merging their talents to jump from the outhouse to the penthouse in a matter of months.
"It's surreal," Daniels said. "If you ask any crew chief in the Cup garage, 'Hey, you're going to win 10 races plus the All-Star and you're going to win the championship, do you believe that's going to happen? Everybody would be like, Man, that's crazy.'"
It's also reality for a pairing that looks poised and ready to win races and championships for many years to come.
Green: Hendrick Motorsports
Larson's victory was the 17th this year for Hendrick in 36 races (plus the All-Star event). They now have back-to-back championships with two different drivers (Chase Elliott, 2020) while their other two drivers, William Byron and Alex Bowman, made noise during the postseason, too. Did I mention all four are signed to long-term deals and they're under the age of 30? The future is bright at HMS.
Yellow: Kevin Harvick
Harvick failed to make the Championship 4 for a second straight year, dealing with a Stewart-Haas Racing team that was one of the year's big disappointments. He went winless for the first time since 2009, a non-factor at a Phoenix track where he has a career-best nine victories.
It was a year filled with challenges. And yet ... Harvick stayed resilient through it all, ending the year fifth in points. That's one spot higher than his nine-win, career-best 2020 that fell short of a title at the end.
Red: Bubba Wallace
It wasn't the happy ending Wallace hoped for after his first career win at Talladega; two wrecks in the last four races, including a last-place finish at Phoenix leave a sour taste. Only three top-10 finishes overall left him 21st in points, a disappointment for Michael Jordan's 23XI Racing team that has plenty of work to do this offseason to be a playoff contender.
Speeding Ticket: Let's Go Brandon controversy
NASCAR President Steve Phelps spoke up Friday about this phrase that's gotten out of hand, cooked up at Talladega after NBC reporter Kelli Stavast claimed the crowd was chanting "Let's go Brandon" after Brandon Brown's Xfinity Series victory. What they were really chanting has now become the code word for insulting President Biden.
"We do not want to associate ourselves with politics, the left or the right," Phelps said. "We obviously have and we've always had as a sport tremendous respect for the office of the president no matter who is sitting."
Not everyone in the garage was listening. A mere two days later, Cup driver Matt DiBenedetto openly retweeted his interview with a reporter in which the graphic reads: "Let's Go Brandon!" Claiming to be courting overtly political sponsors, what will Phelps do if one signs on the bottom line for Matty D?
Ben Rhodes earned his first career Camping World Truck Series championship after passing Zane Smith in the closing laps at Phoenix Friday night. The 24-year-old then went on to hold one of the funniest press conferences in recent memory, one where "he was more zen now, thanks to my good friend, Bud."
The whole thing sparked memories of Brad Keselowski's SportsCenter appearance after winning the Cup championship back in 2012.
Over in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the "oops" came from Austin Cindric leaving a little too much room on the bottom lane. A last-lap bump from Daniel Hemric led to this fender-banging finish that gave Hemric both his first win and series championship in one fell swoop.
How did the 2020 Xfinity champion feel about losing back-to-back titles over a bump-and-run?
"He's over there," Cindric deadpanned, pointing to victory lane. "I'm over here. He's the champion ... if everyone in the stands enjoyed it, it's good racing."