In the Hot Seat with Kyle Larson

All in all, Kyle Larson is in the midst of an incredible start in 2021. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

All in all, Kyle Larson is in the midst of an incredible start in 2021. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

By all means, Kyle Larson is off to a terrific start with his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy team in 2021. After eight races, the 28-year-old Elk Grove, Calif. native has a victory, four top fives and six top 10 results.

While Kyle Larson, best known as “Yung Money,” ranks fourth in the driver’s points standings, the ninth year Cup racer is racing at a championship caliber level. Paired with crew chief Cliff Daniels, Larson seems to be a more complete racer on and off the track.

Certainly, Larson reeled off an impressive victory at Las Vegas, his first points paying victory since Dover on October 6, 2019. However, his fifth place at Martinsville last Sunday evening was equally respectable considering his struggles at this famed short track.

Moreover, Kyle Larson has taken on a hands on approach with his outreach with various communities. Launching the “Drive for Five” campaign through his foundation, Larson hopes to be winning in more ways than one for good causes.

Recently, I caught up with Larson to get his thoughts on his tremendous start, the Hendrick culture, and using his platform as a prominent athlete. With that, let’s get “In the Hot Seat with Kyle Larson” here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson : Kyle, since we last talked, you and the No. 5 team are off to an extremely strong start since first catching up with you before Daytona. You’ve won at Las Vegas and you’ve been consistently scoring top fives to kick off this season. How excited are you about hitting the ground running so quickly and already having a victory in the bag?

Certainly, Larson enjoyed his victory at Las Vegas. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

Certainly, Kyle Larson enjoyed his victory at Las Vegas. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

Kyle Larson : It’s definitely exciting to start the year off this good and be jelling with my team as well as we have been. Like you mentioned, getting that when early in the year also makes things even greater. So yeah, it’s a great, great spot to build off of and continue to try and get better. And, you know, I feel like we’re capable of winning at any racetrack right now, which is fun for my position.

Tiongson : I don’t think you were feigning any confidence about this before the season began. You mentioned to me how excited you were about this opportunity. But you mentioned how it would be take some time to adjust to the Hendrick culture. How have things been going with that in terms of your relationship and rapport not only with the No. 5 team, but with your teammates?

Larson : Yeah, it’s been good. It’s all been different, unique, I think, because typically you’re not dealing with COVID. And you’re able to have practice and have debrief with your teammates and really build relationships that way.

It seems like the only form of communication to get a face to face, anyways, is at our competition meetings. And so, we’re still trying to you’ll learn each other and all that, but man, we’ve all been running good. So, that helps us talk about things and agreeing on things and it’s been fun working with them.

As far as kind of getting to know my team, I mean, gosh, it feels like we’ve been working together for a long time and we haven’t. So, that that’s good. And I really, really enjoy working with Cliff Daniels. He’s just an amazing person and crew chief and definitely makes me a better race car driver.

Tiongson : When I’ve watched these races, you guys are just consistently up at the front. It does seem, like you’ve said, been working with each other for so long. Obviously, it’s only been eight races, but it’s incredible to see just how fast off the gates you guys have been.

You and crew chief Cliff Daniels are getting along pretty well. What’s been some of the keys with that that chemistry being built so well and the way that he’s been able to help you get the most out of your cars?

Larson : Well, I think he’s just such a great leader. And the way he leads people and talks to them and his communication is very comforting to me as a driver. So, that’s been great to have that type of person working with me.

Cliff and my engineers that I have working on my car as well as all the mechanics are extremely smart people and work at a very high level. We discuss all the ingredients for a great race team. And I think that’s what showing the racetrack each week.

Tiongson : Along that note, I recall that Cliff raced late models about a decade ago. Do you think some of his racing experience also translates to the success that you guys have knowing that you’re working with a crew chief who’s just as much of a racer as you are?

No doubt about it, Larson's strong rapport with Cliff Daniels is paying dividends as it did last Sunday at Martinsville. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

No doubt about it, Kyle Larson’s strong rapport with Cliff Daniels is paying dividends as it did last Sunday at Martinsville. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

Larson : Yeah, I think so. And I really got to notice that this past weekend at Martinsville. That’s a track that I struggle at. And that’s the type of track that Cliff would have grown up racing on in late models and the stuff that he grew up raised on.

So he’s able to really kind of coach me on how to drive those places. And he also understands and knows the feeling that you want to have in your racecar and what part of the corners you want to have that feel. So, having his short track experience really helped us and helped me have a good round the other night.

Tiongson : I was going to say, when you got that top five at Martinsville, the first thing I thought was you’ve probably left the track thinking, “You know what? I might as well give myself a grandfather clock,” because that’s a heck of a lot you had at your worst track.

One race you were really looking forward to was the Bristol dirt race. I know it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. Given what you experienced out there with the truck and Cup car, do you feel like it’s going to be an even better show next year with what we’ve learned and what we can do better for next season?

Larson : Yeah, I think so. I definitely think next year it will be a better show than even this year was. And I think NASCAR and hopefully FOX learn a lot about the event and how to make it more viewable for the race fan.

I think having it at night would be a great step and probably fix a lot of the issues this year with the dust and things like that. So, hopefully Goodyear can work on developing another tire for us to go and compete on. I think anytime you do something for the second time, you’re going to do it better than the first. So, for sure, we’ll be able to learn from everything that we did this this year, which I think honestly, was a success.

I think a lot of the race fans enjoyed it. I know a lot of the competitors did as well. And yeah, like I said, I think it will be even better next year.

Tiongson : I’m not really well versed with dirt racing other than watching the Chili Bowl every January. But is it typical to see that much dust accumulate or was it just a byproduct of just the newness for everybody?

Larson : Well, I mean, every dirt tracks different, but running during the daytime like we did at Bristol, that just makes it even dustier than it probably would’ve been at night just with the sunlight and the sun baking the track and getting it just dried out makes it really dusty. So, every dirt track is going to have some dust, but that’s why dirt races run at night too. So you don’t have to deal with the dust as much.

Tiongson : That makes a lot of sense. And hey, maybe they’ll, there’ll think about doing that next year. It would be a winning combination to everybody.

Last month, when I was one of the press members at the post race for Atlanta, it meant a lot to me personally and professionally to hear your support and thoughts of the Asian American community given what happened in Atlanta unfortunately last month.

As an athlete who has that platform to catalyze positive changes, I know it’s always been racing first and foremost. But, how important is it for you to see more of that equality and acceptance for us Asians in the United States and in the world?

Larson : Yeah. I mean, definitely. I think, really with all races, more equality is what we’re all striving for. So, I mean with me being half Japanese and seeing everything that happened, it definitely touches me personally.

And I think after everything that I went through last year and getting a firsthand (look) and learn about and see what types of things African Americans go through, it kind of opened my eyes even more to when the stuff in Atlanta happened as well. With my platform, I think I can definitely try my best to raise awareness and do good things and support good things like that when they happen.

So, you hope you never see things like that ever happen again. But yeah, I just gotta do my part to try and make change.

Tiongson : And I think that was really awesome of you to do that because I know that’s not something very easy to talk about. The fact that you were even vocal about it even a little bit meant a lot. So that was nice of you to do during a really difficult time that we all experience as Americans

You’re one of the original racers who was part of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. We’re starting to see the changing of the guard. You, Bubba Wallace, and Daniel Suarez are among those graduates who are now in the Cup series. What does it mean for you to be one of those faces of success with NASCAR’s diversity efforts?

Larson : Yeah, I mean it’s awesome for sure. I learned a lot that year in 2012 when I ran for Rev Racing and had support from the NASCAR diversity program. Looking at it now, there’s a lot of drivers that I raced with that year. You mentioned Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez from the Drive for Diversity program that are now successful Cup series racers.

But, also that year, we were part of the NASCAR Next program. And there are so many drivers in the Cup series today that were from that crop of guys in that one season. You could add Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Corey LaJoie that list. I know I’m missing a few others too.

So, there’s just a lot of talent that came from that that year. And it’s neat to see us all end up racing on Sundays together. And like you mentioned, racing in the diversity program with Bubba and Daniel, it’s extra special, too.

Tiongson : I was going to say that NASCAR Next program was really cool to see. I’m not sure whatever happens to it, but I would love to see it revived just because, like you said, 2012, you guys were just in K&N East Series which is now the ARCA Menards East Series. Watching you guys progress through the years, you guys are the Cup Series, if you think about it. So it’s just so cool to see that happen.

I think it’s really neat that you established the Drive for Five campaign with your foundation. So, I know it’s just in the beginnings. How have things been going with your initiative? And are there ways for fans to help out or pitch in with the Drive for Five campaign?

Larson : Yeah, it’s definitely exciting. Right now, we’re still setting it up to be able to have fans be able to participate in it and donate. So, it’s still in the beginning stages of everything. But, it’s been going good.

Firstly, I donate $5 for every lap that I complete this year and then $5,000.00 for every top five. So, it’s our goal is to raise $500,000.00 throughout the year.

We have a long ways to go. But, I look forward to raising that money to benefit the Urban Youth Racing School and The Sanneh Foundation and working more with the Hendrick Cares program as well. It’s exciting, like I said, to finally have my own charity. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for probably five or six years now.

And now, I’m in a good spot to be able to move forward and do it and learn more about it, have it evolve and grow into something hopefully really big in the future.

Tiongson : If you have any updates about that, certainly let me know. I think it’s great that you’re doing that with your outreach.

Racing can have its heated moments and everyone’s susceptible to it. You had that little mix up with Christopher Bell at Bristol that we heard in Radioactive. How do you pick and choose your battles on the track in terms of when to let things go? And when do you know it’s time to take a stand for yourself?

Larson : I don’t know. I’m a small guy, so I’m not one to take things into my own hands at all. (laughs) And two, I’ve always been the type of person that just kinda gets over things quickly. So, there’s nothing you can do about it after anything happens other than retaliating, which is not something I’m about. And it only ends up affecting your race and your season and your end goal of winning a championship.

So, I try to stay out of drama. And I think I do a really good job of that. There’s guys that strive and love having drama around them and do a good job with it. But for me personally, I just try and stay out of it and run my own race and stay quiet on the radio for the most part. And yeah, I just try to mind my own business.

Tiongson : That’s the right way to go about things. And at least you don’t end up getting nominated for NASCAR Race Hub’s Radio Sweetheart. I don’t think you have ever been nominated to be honest.

While some races feature the traditional race weekend format, we’ve had the show up and race schedule for a balance of these races since last year. What’s it been like to have these one day shows in terms of the work/life balance?

All things considered, Kyle Larson enjoys the "show up and race" weekends. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

All things considered, Kyle Larson enjoys the “show up and race” weekends. (Photo: Hendrick Motorsports)

Larson : I love it. I love the schedule. I love having more freedom at home, more time to spend with your family, more time to go race dirt cars and stuff like that. And then, two, I think I enjoy the challenge and almost being forced, in a way, to have to study and prepare super, super hard. That way, you know, you’re ready to go for the race on that weekend.

You can prepare somebody the days leading up to the event and beat them on Sunday. A lot of times, with practice and stuff, you’d study a little bit and show up. And you knew that you had a couple hours to figure it out during practice.

Well, now, you’ve got to be ready to go and gotta be prepared. So, I enjoy that and it kind of feels more grassroots, like dirt racing to me, just showing up and racing.

Tiongson : When you came back and a lot of these races became one day shows, I was thinking you’d be doing more dirt track races this year. I know June’s typically your busy times so I’m sure it’ll be awesome to have that freed up schedule.

Larson : Yeah. I’ll get to race quite a bit. So I’m thankful that Hendrick Motorsports and Cliff Daniels and everybody are allowing me to do it. I believe it makes me a better race car driver. So, I think it’s a good thing.

Tiongson : Absolutely. Now, you’re still one of the young drivers in NASCAR. If you could go give advice to your younger self eight or 10 years ago, when you were racing for Rev Racing, what would you tell your younger self about your racing journey? Is there something you could have improved upon?

Larson : I guess maybe have a little bit better of a work ethic. Growing up (in) racing and then when I was getting into NASCAR, maybe I could just spend more time in the gym. I never worked out before really a few years ago. And now that I do, I really see a benefit to it. Maybe not on the physical side, but the mental side and being mentally strong.

So I think I would, I wish I would have done that. So that’s what I would tell myself before is to have that work ethic throughout the week to prepare yourself for the race weekends,

Tiongson : You sound a bit like the guy who drove for Cliff Daniels last year and he turned himself into quite the addict. I think a little bit of that Jimmie Johnson attitude is good to have to say the least.

I’ll be interviewing Ricky Stenhouse Jr in the future. Somewhat like Jeff Gluck, but in a Rob kind of way, what question would you like to ask him?

Larson : Oh gosh, I don’t know. I know him so well, I don’t really have any questions for him. (laughs)

Tiongson : Something that you think is that a fan would be curious about. Or even me, like something funny that I could ask him?

Larson : So, like, even when I do these questions with Gluck, I’m so bad at thinking of questions off the cuff. I have to wait a few days to think of one. (laughs) I don’t know. I really don’t know.

Tiongson : Well, I’ve wondered when he’d bring his mullet back. Didn’t he have it cut this year?

Larson : Yeah. He cut it at some point last year. I think he had some bad luck or something. Well, he bought his first pair of straight cut jeans a couple of months ago. He’s always worn boot cut. He’s a cowboy from Mississippi. He’s got the fade going.

You can ask him about his wardrobe change. No more mullet. Just the straight jeans now!

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Kyle Larson for taking the time this week to talk about his terrific start and his foundation’s initiative! Also, thanks to Jon Edwards and Hendrick Motorsports for their assistance with this latest interview on The Podium Finish. Be sure to “Like” the Facebook page, “Visit” the official website, and “Follow” the official Twitter for Kyle Larson. Last but not least, if you’d like to learn more about Kyle Larson’s “Drive for Five” efforts, be sure to check out his foundation’s official website.

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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