Sunday’s Daytona 500 marks Kyle Larson’s 224th career Cup race, but the season-opening event feels like a first career start to the veteran driver.
“I’m nervous,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I’m excited.”
The nerves are because this week marks his first NASCAR race in 11 months. Larson lost his Chip Ganassi Racing ride last April after he uttered a racial slur during an online racing event. He returns this season with Hendrick Motorsports.
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Expectations are high for Larson even though he’s working with a new crew chief for the first time in six years and must adjust to racing at most tracks without practice and qualifying – something his competitors went through last year.
With limited track time at Daytona, Larson took his No. 5 Chevrolet on a spin around the Hendrick Motorsports campus in January to make sure he was comfortable in the seat.
Larson will have less time in the car than many this week because he is not among the 21 drivers competing in Tuesday night’s Busch Clash on the Daytona road course. The first time Larson will be on track will be Wednesday’s practice session for that night’s qualifying session.
Getting adjusted to his car and up to speed are just some of the familiarizations Larson must make with his new ride. Learning names is another.
“The team is twice as big as what I’m used to,” he said. “Meeting all these people is a bit overwhelming especially when you see only half of their face. I’ll hopefully get to meet everybody again someday when we don’t have masks and really be able to put a face with a name.”
One of Larson’s biggest adjustments will be working with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who had been Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief since Aug. 2019.
“I’m definitely excited to have Cliff as my crew chief,” Larson said. “I think he’s a totally different style of crew chief than I’ve ever had before. Even going to any dirt car crew chief that I’ve worked with. Cliff definitely stands out as being different and is very focused. He seems to be kind of a perfectionist.
“I didn’t really get to work with Chad Knaus ever. Just from looking at Chad from the outside, I feel Cliff is a lot like him. Everybody knows the success that Chad and Jimmie had. I hope Cliff and I can have that success.”
With Larson not competing in the final 32 Cup races of last season, Daniels and his team had to look further back in understanding what Larson needs to run well.
“There’s definitely going to be a growth process that we have to go through to learn each other better in the actual environment,” Daniels told NBC Sports. “I’ve certainly done a lot of homework myself over the offseason. On our team, with our engineers and other guys on the team, we’ve looked at all the data, watched old races, in-car video, anything that we can find that is relevant and helpful just to brush up on trends of his style, nuances of different tracks that he admittedly runs well at and others he feels that he needs to improve.”
One thing is clear is Larson’s ability on restarts.
“We’re looking forward to letting Kyle show his abilities on restarts and it boils down two things for us,” Daniels said. “Confidence and comfort. …“The more comfortable a driver is, secure in what he is feeling within his own car, it is going to give him more confidence to make those moves and really be on offense.”
Car owner Rick Hendrick isn’t worried about Larson, who has six career Cup wins, and Daniels, who seeks his first career win as a Cup crew chief.
“Larson, we know what he can do,” Hendrick said in November. “He and Cliff will be a good combination.”
Larson’s former teammate, Kurt Busch, also expects much from Larson this season.
“The professionalism of Hendrick Motorsports has never been questioned,” Busch said. “The guidance there and just everything that I’m seeing adding up is that once he gets the feel of the car, and once he’s in sync with his crew chief – they’re going to be a tough train to stop. I see that program as being one of the top contenders already.”
A key race early for Daniels and Larson could be the Feb. 28 race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the season’s third event. He has three top-five finishes in Cup and one win and three top-three finishes in Xfinity there.
“If we go there and dominate even more than I did when I was at the 42, I think that shows how strong we could be throughout the whole year,” Larson said. “Or if we go there and run average, that would show that we have a lot of work to do. I think that to be an important race for us for a lot of reasons.”
Also among Larson’s focus is continuing his outreach on diversity issues. After losing his ride at Ganassi and NASCAR suspending him for the online racing game incident, Larson hired a diversity coach and spoke with Black athletes, including Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee and corporate executives. He wrote in October that “I will not stop listening and learning.”
Larson plans to continue working with the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia and with the Sanneh Foundation, which provides programs in Minnesota’s Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul) “that unite communities by advancing diversity, equity and community well-being.” Larson spent time with the group last summer.
“I’m excited to get out of there and do good things, whatever that may be, let people get a glimpse of who I really am,” Larson told NBC Sports. “There are a lot of people within this sport I think I’ve met and I think I’ve made good impressions on, but it’s people I’ve hurt outside the industry that I hope to show everybody who I really am.”