INSIGHT: Second chance champion

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INSIGHT: Second chance champion

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Second chance champion

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The season started with Fox Sports declaring it would be the best ever. When it ended Sunday evening at Phoenix Raceway, the championship-winning driver had undoubtedly put together one.

Kyle Larson’s championship reign began with tears of joy because of the significance of the accomplishment and gratitude over the journey of the last 18 months. He received significant cheers from the grandstands, and before his media obligations were complete and all the celebratory photos were taken, he had been praised by fellow competitors and some of the best across the racing world like Mario Andretti and Tony Stewart. Stewart, a three-time Cup Series champion, tweeted congratulations to “the best race car driver I’ve ever seen.”

Fired from Chip Ganassi Racing and suspended from the sport after using a racial slur last year, Larson re-emerged with Hendrick Motorsports and wasted no time showing the potential heaved upon him early in his career was real. Not only is Larson and the No. 5 team a fitting champion after a year of domination, but at 29 years old, Larson is likely just getting started.

Consider that Larson is a California kid with a dirt racing background whose dreams were winning prestigious races like the Chili Bowl. He’s done that and more on dirt across the country and around the world. The vision in stock car racing was different, though. Being successful here after entering NASCAR’s premier level in 2014 meant winning individual races.

Reaching the mountaintop? Larson never pictured himself being in the same column of ‘NASCAR Cup champion’ where the likes of Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, Gordon, and Johnson are listed.

“Don’t try and spin this in the wrong way because I don’t know if I ever dreamt of winning the Cup Series championship because I feel like it’s outside of realistic things,” Larson said. “I feel like I dream about stuff that I know I can go do, and I’m not sure I ever really thought that I could win a Cup Series championship. I’ve always thought about winning races, not championships. I didn’t know if I would ever win a Cup Series championship, so I can’t say that it was a dream of mine.

“Like I said, don’t take that the wrong way because that’s not what I’m trying to make it sound like. It’s just it’s so far out there that I never thought that I would do it. Until I got with this team, for sure. Early on in the year, I felt like we could do it, but then you kind of think about how the format is and all that. You’re like, ‘Well, something is going to happen where I don’t win this championship.’

“Maybe that’s what kept it out of my dreams a little bit, too, of all the circumstances that go into winning a championship in the Cup Series. Any other form of racing, it’s like a year-long thing. You can work your way towards winning a championship. With this format, it’s just crazy. I think that’s kind of what’s kept it from me, like dreaming about these moments and how I would see it being like.”

Larson’s final numbers are staggering. His 10 wins are the most for a driver in the Cup Series since Jimmie Johnson in 2007. With a victory in the All-Star Race over the summer, Larson became the seventh driver to win the $1 million non-points race and the championship in the same season.

Larson (right) delivered a magical season similar to the likes of former Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon (left). Motorsport Images

He also won five of the 10 playoff races, which matched the record set by Stewart in 2011. Finishing the year with 2,581 laps led, Larson set a new record for most laps led in a season since the Cup Series went to a 36-race schedule. Of course, Larson officially set the record before even getting to Phoenix. In the process, he became the 14th driver to lead at least 2,000 laps in a single season.

Denny Hamlin might have set the pace early on, but it won’t be remembered because once Larson and company got rolling, it was all Larson all the time. The criticism he couldn’t close races and made too many mistakes? Time to find new material. And while he never considered it a redemption tour, Larson did everything right in his return to NASCAR in representing himself and his team well, appreciating his second chance, and continuing to educate himself off the track and give back to the community.

There is no reason to believe Larson will not be a worthy and active ambassador as the champion.

“Nobody could ever dream of having a season like we’ve had this year,” said first-time champion crew chief Cliff Daniels. “You can’t script this. You can’t even draw this up on paper.

“I think even winning one race a year in the Cup Series is a big accomplishment. Then when you look at the season that we’ve had this season, honestly, it’s not sank in for me yet. It’s probably going to take a little while. It’s truly a dream come true.”

It was incredible to watch, but Larson is an incredible driver. Take all he did in NASCAR with 10 wins in 36 races, and then remember that on dirt tracks this year, Larson stacked up wins in unbelievable fashion. In all, it was 30 dirt wins in 89 races.

“What I’m proud about too this year — there’s a lot I’m proud about — but this year I raced so many different types of cars,” Larson said. “I was able to win a marquee event in each of the cars that I raced: the Chili Bowl and the BC39 in midget, Kings Royal, Knoxville Nationals in a sprint car, the Prairie Dirt Classic in a dirt late model, and a handful of big wins in the Cup Series. And to top it off with a Cup Series championship.

“I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to top this year, but I hope I can someday.”

So maybe after, from the thrown around “best ever” phrase, the word “best” is appropriate. One of the best drivers of his generation was not only crowned the best in the Cup Series but had one of the best overall racing seasons any driver can have. And we were all witness to the best version of Kyle Larson that many imagined but often wondered if would ever be seen.

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