Innovation and redemption define 2021 NASCAR season

Change is inevitable but it can often serve as a catalyst for self-reflection and rejuvenation. Kyle Larson and NASCAR are proof of that.

Most of the NASCAR post-season reviews will focus primarily on statistics such as races won and laps led as a way to assess a particular driver’s season. And, by any measure, 2021 Cup Series champion, Kyle Larson, had an extraordinary year.

But Larson’s racing prowess goes far beyond his 10 NASCAR Cup Series victories with 20 top fives, 26 top 10s and 2581 laps led, the most laps led by any driver since Jeff Gordon led 2,610 in 1995. During his off time, he also won a variety of dirt track events including the Chili Bowl, Knoxville Nationals, World of Outlaws Sprint Cars and World of Outlaws late models.

Those numbers, however, only tell half the story.

Larson’s road to success began in April 2020 after using a racial slur during an iRacing event. His subsequent suspension from NASCAR and release from Chip Ganassi Racing sent him on a journey to redemption that led him to Hendrick Motorsports in 2021.

His first steps began much earlier with a personal introspection that inspired him to go beyond NASCAR’s mandated sensitivity training.

In an essay posted on his website in October, Larson said, “Since April, I’ve done a lot of reflecting. I realized how little I really knew about the African-American experience in this country and racism in general,” Larson writes. “Educating myself is something I should’ve done a long time ago because it would’ve made me a better person — the kind of person who doesn’t casually throw around an awful, racist word. The kind who makes an effort to understand the hate and oppression it symbolizes and the depth of pain it has caused Black people throughout history and still to this day. It was past time for me to shut up, listen and learn.”

Larson was reinstated by NASCAR for the 2021 season and found a home at Hendrick Motorsports. He has continued to educate himself and others about racial injustice.

After winning the championship title at Phoenix Raceway, an emotional Larson, said, “I cannot believe it. I didn’t even think I’d be racing a Cup car a year and a half ago.”

As Larson has worked to rebuild his life and cleanse his tarnished reputation NASCAR was on a similar quest to redefine itself amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

NASCAR President Steve Phelps addressed the media, the fans and the organization in his state of the sport address before the weekend championship finale. He spoke about not only finding a way around the obstacles that were a result of the pandemic but thriving despite the circumstances.

With the cooperation and dedication of everyone involved, NASCAR took the lead in the sports industry by completing its full schedule of races while adhering to stringent protocols to provide a safe environment. In 2020 NASCAR was acknowledged as the Sports Business Journal League of the Year.

“It really took an industry coming together in order to make that happen. It took race teams, our broadcast partners, our sponsors, tracks that we own or tracks that we don’t own, that all came together to create an opportunity for our sport to grow, which is exactly what’s happening.

“Every single person who is part of this industry, including the folks in this room, were part of that. Last year wasn’t an easy year. But we persevered. Frankly, we are a stronger sport today than we were pre-pandemic. I would argue with anyone who would say otherwise.

“I think it’s good for our sport, I really do. I think it’s healthy to infuse it not just with new fans but new ownership, new brands that are coming into the sport. We’re seeing all those things.”

As NASCAR looks ahead to the 2022 season and the implementation of the NextGen car, they are anticipating an ongoing trend of resurgence to bring more fans into the sport with a commitment to continually evolve.

Change is inevitable but it can often serve as a catalyst for self-reflection and rejuvenation. Kyle Larson and NASCAR are proof of that.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

Angela Campbell
A native of Charlotte, NC, Angela (Angie) was first introduced to racing by her father. An avid fan of NASCAR, she found a way to combine her love of racing with her passion for writing. Angie is also an award-winning member of the National Motorsports Press Association. Follow her on Twitter @angiecampbell_ for the latest NASCAR news and feature stories.

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