Car owner Rick Hendrick says he hopes sponsors see Kyle Larson as he does and the changes Larson has undergone this year.
When Hendrick Motorsports announced Wednesday that it had signed Larson to a multi-year contract to drive the No. 5 car in 2021, the team stated the car was unsponsored.
Hendrick knows it could be a challenge to persuade some sponsors to align with Larson after the driver was fired from his previous ride for uttering a racial slur during an online racing event in April.
“If I presented his case to any sponsor,” Hendrick said Thursday, “I would spend a lot of time explaining to them what he did and owning up to the mistake he made and the different person he is.
“I know that’s not going to be easy. We’re just going to take it one step at a time because I think as people really understand and get to see him through the lens of what he accomplished this year while he was out of the car, I think people are going to be more comfortable with coming on board. That’s my hope. We’ll see how it works out.”
Since he was fired from his ride at Chip Ganassi Racing and suspended by NASCAR, Larson has spent the following months rehabilitating himself and his image. NASCAR announced Oct. 19 that Larson will be cleared to return to the sport Jan. 1, 2021.
In an Oct. 4 essay he posted online, Larson detailed the steps he’s taken and people he’s talked with to have a better understanding of the Black community and the damage he did by uttering the racial slur.
Hendrick was among those who reached out to Larson as a friend after Larson was fired. They stayed in communication. Hendrick said it wasn’t until much later before the idea of Larson driving for the team was broached.
“The thing that impressed me so much about Kyle was his heart and the things he was doing above and beyond what he was asked to do,” Hendrick said. “I had to get comfortable with his heart and that he was really sincere. He was not afraid to tell everyone that it was a terrible thing, ‘Sorry I did it. I’m going to make it right.’ ”
WATCH: Kyle Larson and Rick Hendrick on the Dale Jr. Download at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 29 on NBCSN
Chevrolet, which suspended its relationship with Larson in April, issued a statement supporting Kyle this week. Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of Performance and Motorsports for Chevrolet stated: “Kyle has taken positive steps focused on listening and learning and has expressed his commitment to be an agent of change for the positive when it comes to inclusivity and diversity in NASCAR.”
Larson told reporters Thursday that he understands those who question him after what he said in April.
“I definitely think there’s probably a lot of people out there that have concern about me,” he said. “It’s not something that happens overnight. I think it’s something that takes time.
“I think people, as they get to spend more time around me or get to see what I’m doing off the racetrack, outside the race car and get to really learn who I am, I think that’s when the forgiveness will be there and people will have a more open mind to forgive me.
“I know that takes time. It’s still been such a short time since this all happened that I still have a lot of my reputation to rebuild. I look forward to being around Mr. (Hendrick) and learn a lot off of him because he’s probably one of the – if not the – most respected people in the garage area. It will take time, but I think who I really am will shine through and people will be able to forgive me.”