Kyle Larson embraces second chance, wins at Las Vegas for Hendrick
Kyle Larson, who lost his job with Chip Ganassi Racing four races into the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, completed his comeback by winning for Hendrick Motorsports four races into the 2021 season.
Larson dominated Sunday's Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading a race-best 103 of 267 laps.
What a difference a year makes. Larson lost his ride last year when he used a racial slur while taking part in a televised video game competition shortly after racing stopped as the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread.
Hendrick Motorsports gave Larson a second chance, and he showed his appreciation by finishing in front of Team Penske's Brad Keselowski by 3.15 seconds.
"It was such an awesome race car," said Larson, a 28-year-old native of Northern California. "It was so much fun to drive. I could go wherever I wanted to."
Keselowski noticed exactly that.
"He was really fast," Keselowski said. "He was smart. He had a lot of speed in all the lanes which was really impressive. Usually, you've got to make a compromise.
"If Kyle Larson wouldn't have been here, it would have been a dominant day. He's got some good equipment now and he's going to keep showing it, I'm sure."
The victory was the seventh of Larson's career but first on a 1.5-mile track. He has nine runner-up finishes on intermediate tracks.
Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin finished third and fourth respectively.
Busch's finish on his hometown track was his best of the season. He called it "a building block" result for his team.
Ryan Blaney, Keselowski's teammate finished fifth, and a third Gibbs driver, Martin Truex Jr, finished sixth.
After Larson's use of a slur last spring, NASCAR indefinitely suspended him, his sponsors dumped him and Ganassi fired him.
He was reinstated in October and quickly hired by Hendrick.
"Thank you so much Mr H, Jeff Gordon (a former Hendrick driver) and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I've been gifted," Larson said. "This is definitely special."
Keselowski, who got his best finish of the year, rushed out to congratulate Larson after the race.
"I was way happy for him," said Keselowski, a three-time winner at Las Veags. "I know he's been through a lot over the last year. He's a good kid. I've known him for a little while, got a good family. Happy to see him bounce back."
Defending series champion Chase Elliott had a tough day. The Hendrick Motorsports driver led three times for 22 laps in the first stage, but his car suffered minor damage late in the stage and then more significant damage when he spun on Lap 170.
Elliott restarted four laps later in 27th-place and rebounded to finish 13th.
Christopher Bell of the Gibbs team, the winner of the Daytona road race, was seventh.
William Byron of Hendrick, who won last weekend's race at the 1.5 Homestead-Miami Speedway oval, was eighth.
Keselowski survived a battle with Elliott to win the first stage. It was his first stage win of the season.
Larson was an easy winner in Stage 2.
The series stays in the desert as it moves to Arizona for next weekend's 312-miler at the 1-mile Phoenix Raceway oval.