Rick Hendrick said he reached out to Kyle Larson as a friend in the immediate aftermath of his NASCAR suspension and subsequent firing for using a racial slur. Then from afar, Hendrick watched the work Larson was doing to better himself, and over the summer was when talks of Larson possibly signing with Hendrick began.
“Of course, we couldn’t do anything until NASCAR reinstated him,” said Hendrick.
Larson was reinstated Oct. 19 and is clear to resume racing as of January 1, 2021. He signed his contract with Hendrick on Wednesday morning, Oct. 28, and the deal was announced later that day.
“We talked about a lot of things, and it just led up to, ‘Man, I’d love to have you drive the car, but we’ve got to get through all these situations, get you reinstated,’” Hendrick said. “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 — traveling around the country on his own.
“To me, I had to get comfortable with his heart and that he was really sincere. He was not afraid to tell everyone that that was a terrible thing, I’m sorry I did it, I’m going to make it right. I’m not just going to work while I’m getting reinstated; I’m going to carry on and build on it as time goes. So, I’m real proud of what he’s done and what he’s doing.”
Larson will drive the No. 5 Chevrolet and work with crew chief Cliff Daniels. It’s the team seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is working with right now, and the number will be changed beginning next season.
No sponsors or partners were announced for Larson’s car, and Hendrick confirmed that’s because there are none.
“We haven’t gotten into the sponsorship deal,” said Hendrick, “but we don’t have a sponsor at this point for the car.”
Hendrick Motorsports will be the second organization for which Larson has driven in the Cup Series. In 2012, a relatively unknown Larson signed a development deal with Chip Ganassi that brought him from dirt to stock cars. Larson moved into the Cup Series full-time in 2014 and won Rookie of the Year, and in the 223 starts he made before being fired, won six times. It was enough to impress Hendrick.
“Didn’t like to race against him,” Hendrick said, but considering that the Ganassi teams run Hendrick engines, the Hall of Fame team owner “always took a little bit of pride that the motor was ours.”
Larson was in a contract year with Ganassi before his troubles, so it’s possible he would have ended up on the market. However, Hendrick had a clear reason why he never previously tried to sign Larson.
“I’ve always really been a fan of his because I love the way he drives, but he was driving for Chip, so Chip and I have a good relationship, and I didn’t feel like I could go after him. I wouldn’t go after him with Chip being a friend,” said Hendrick. “When this deal opened up, I literally went to him as a friend because we’ve developed a relationship, and I knew he was going through a tough time. As time went on, I found out what he was doing and what he was doing to help and do so many things.
“I had to be careful; I wouldn’t do something that would hurt our company, our name, our brand, so that was important to me. But after seeing what he was doing, he just laid his heart out for everybody. To do some of the things that he’s done, I think it takes a man to admit, ‘Hey, I did something terrible, and I want to make it right. I’m going to learn. I’m going to go. I’m going to do.’ So, when I looked at that, I thought, ‘Hey, everybody deserves a second chance.’ I’m not thankful he got in trouble, but I admire the way he handled it, and I’m excited about the future.”