Kyle Larson Scores Historic Title, Catalyzes Diversity Movement

Kyle Larson cherishes his historic NASCAR Cup Series championship with son Owen. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Larson cherishes his historic NASCAR Cup Series championship with son Owen. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

While the checkered flag waved on the NASCAR Cup Series season last Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, Kyle Larson can look back at 2021 with pride as this year’s champion.

Beyond the 10 wins, 20 top fives and 26 top 10 finishes, Larson achieved incredible accomplishments with his No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevy team. Of course, the 29-year-old Elk Grove, California native would be the first to observe how his on-track successes were solely of his doing.

One of the most poignant moments of this season took place during last Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race on lap 285. During the final caution period of the season, Larson entered pit road in the fourth position.

In this case, Larson’s pit crew delivered in crunch time with an 11.8 second, four tire pit stop, leapfrogging three positions and back into the lead.

Despite the intense challenges by the Championship 4 contenders, Larson held onto the lead for the final 24 laps, winning the season finale and championship.

From the statistical and teamwork standpoints, Larson recognized the sweetness of his latest achievement at Phoenix.

Larson will be the first to observe how his team catalyzed his championship season. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Larson will be the first to observe how his team catalyzed his championship season. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

“For us to come in fourth behind them and come out the leader was a little bit better than I thought we could do,” Larson acknowledged. “But my pit crew, I’ve got all the belief in the world in them. They proved all season long that they were consistent and consistently fast. We have such a great team, and they’re a massive part of it, and they’re the reason why we won tonight.”

In terms of the sentimental and emotional stances, the Californian recognized the significance of racing for Hendrick Motorsports’ revived No. 5 entry.

“Man, it’d be awesome,” Larson said prior to this year’s Daytona 500. “Definitely be really, really cool to get a championship with that car and number. There’s so much history with that number with Rick Hendrick. So, I think it would be special to a lot of us and a lot of people that probably worked on the No. 5 car back in the day at Hendrick. So I hope we can do it.”

Certainly, Larson’s championship season evoked nostalgic moments of the No. 5 car’s heydays. Drivers like Geoff Bodine, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte went door to door with NASCAR’s best with Hendrick Motorsports’ flagship car number.

Similarly, Larson reflected on adding to the No. 5 car’s legacy in NASCAR following his championship win at Phoenix.

Larson's championship year revived a sentimental paint scheme and car number. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Larson’s championship year revived a sentimental paint scheme and car number. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

“I’m really happy to be able to add on to the legacy of the number and the paint scheme and what all it means for Hendrick Motorsports and Rick and Linda Hendrick especially,” he said. “Yeah, it’s the originating car number for their team. There’s just so many awesome things that now I get to be attached to with it, with that number.”

Most of all, Larson’s championship serves as a huge victory for NASCAR’s diversity efforts. Graduating from the Drive for Diversity program in 2012, Larson, who is Japanese American, considered the importance of winning this year’s championship for a thriving demographic.

“For the Asian community, that would be something to be proud of,” Larson shared last Thursday. “Yeah, it would be really neat.”

Prior to Larson’s Cup career starting in 2013, there were the likes of Hideo Fukuyama, Akihiko Nakata and Keiichi Tsuchiya who competed in the Cup level, albeit in exhibition races in Japan. Years later, Larson and Ryan Ellis represent the Asian American community with their racing efforts.

Larson celebrates his championship in grand fashion. (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

Larson celebrates his championship in grand fashion. (Photo: Landen Ciardullo | The Podium Finish)

When the racing community reflects on the 2021 season, Larson’s incredible on track successes will garner plentiful attention. After all, the dominance put forth by Larson and the No. 5 team seem reminiscent of Hendrick Motorsports’ masterful title successes with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.

Undoubtedly, Larson takes pride as being the first Drive for Diversity graduate to win the Cup championship. Outside of the remarkable numbers and No. 5 team’s lightning fast pit stops, Larson’s formative years with the the Drive for Diversity program may speak loudly for those pursuing their dreams.

“I learned a lot that year in 2012 when I ran for Rev Racing and had support from the NASCAR diversity program,” Larson said. “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. Racing in the diversity program with Bubba and Daniel, it’s extra special, too.”

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 Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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