In his first extended interview since nearly destroying his NASCAR career with the most unfortunate choice of words in his life, Kyle Larson said all the right things Thursday.
That’s the right thing for the new Hendrick Motorsports driver. It’s the right thing for NASCAR. And it’s the right thing for the world in general.
Is it the right thing for fans (and, admittedly, reporters) who loved Larson in part because he often said what could be construed as the “wrong” thing?
That doesn’t really matter, in some regard.
If Larson hadn’t come correct to bear all the heat and responsibility for using a racial slur that left him banished from the Cup Series for several months, he rightfully would be skewered for having learned nothing from such a regrettable experience. He would be pilloried as being undeserving of a second chance.
Only the most cynical among us would deny that Larson’s path to redemption has been as contrite, genuine and pious as could be demanded (or orchestrated, the same cynics will claim).
Larson completed all his obligations with vigor, and he went well beyond many of the requirements for reinstatement without calling attention to himself. There was legitimate humbleness and remorse in his tone as he recounted the pain of all those he disappointed and the personal growth for which he was grateful.
He admitted to screwing up royally. If it had cost him a Cup ride forever, then so be it.
“I definitely didn’t think I would get another opportunity in NASCAR,” he said.
A driver once known for rarely choosing his words carefully didn’t make a misstep during the course of 45 minutes Thursday.
But he still spoke from the heart. It was the plainspoken and simple honesty we’ve come to expect from a star who never sugarcoated anything.
Except it also wasn’t the #BluntLarson we remember.
That persona might be gone forever.
Some would argue it had to be eradicated, given what’s at stake – a multimillion-dollar sponsorship hunt (Hendrick confirmed Thursday the newly reborn No. 5 Chevrolet has no sponsors) and a continued existence in a racing world where Corporate America always has undue influence, for better or worse, on drivers.
For years, Larson was able to resist those bleached shackles from being applied to his personality. Winning, or at least the glimmering potential for victory, will forgive a host of sins in professional sports, and in Larson’s case, it allowed the latitude for speaking freely about virtually everything.
Ranking the prestige of winning a dirt race over the Daytona 500. Questioning whether anyone needs practice (hey, he was ahead of his time there). Tacitly challenging his peers for ignoring their roots while casually proclaiming himself “the last true racer.”
Even playfully calling out his new employer for “cheating” during the playoffs.
Part of Larson’s appeal is that you never knew what he might say. But you always knew it would be said in the most unvarnished and straightforward manner possible.
Coupled with his otherworldly talent, it made him seem absurdly confident and supremely assured without the hint of a cocksure driver strutting around with unnecessary bluster and swagger.
It’s Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean who is credited with, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” But it sounds just like something Larson offhandedly would say with detachment after casually achieving the impossible through a few flicks of the steering wheel.
“I’ve always been an open person and a genuinely good person,” Larson said. “I think I can still be that guy. That’s something that’s always important to me is to be real. I think for sure I need to be more thoughtful. But I think I can still be the real Kyle Larson.
“I don’t plan on changing that aspect, but I have learned a lot and obviously won’t be using any derogatory terms like I did.”
It would be unfair to base what’s to come entirely on Larson’s first interview with Hendrick. The line of questioning naturally didn’t allow much deviation from recounting the way back into NASCAR. Larson’s answers were filled with repentance and some self-flagellation.
They also sounded a little rehearsed. That’s understandable after six months of incessantly answering the same questions about whether he was worthy of a second chance. It would be foolish to attempt such an image rehabilitation without relying on the advice and coaching of media professionals.
But there will be more of that in the future at Hendrick Motorsports, the first-class haven of spotless floors and starched shirts that remains a standard of professionalism in NASCAR.
Kyle Larson, the future Cup champion who found a way to salvation, will be welcomed.
Kyle Larson, occasional oratorical bomb thrower and pit disturber, will be scolded.
Is it possible to celebrate the former … while lamenting the probable loss of the latter?
Bluntly speaking, it seems the right thing to do.