Kyle Larson celebrates return with 1st win since suspension

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Bubba Wallace, left, congratulates Kyle Larson after Larson won a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

LAS VEGAS – Kyle Larson wasn’t sure he’d ever race again in NASCAR, and if he could, he didn’t know who would even hire him.

It was Rick Hendrick who took the chance on a driver many believed was radioactive for sponsors. Larson's use of a racial slur while participating in an online race last April cost him his job, his reputation and his ability to attract the corporations that fund a race team.

Hendrick said he'd pay for the car himself because he was that confident that Larson, reformed after months of self-work, could be redeemed.

On Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Larson raced to his first NASCAR victory since he was reinstated from a nearly yearlong suspension. He ran just the first four races last season and was hired by Hendrick Motorsports when NASCAR said the suspension would lift at the start of this year.

“Thanks Mr. H. for believing in me,” Larson radioed to boss Rick Hendrick after crossing the finish line.

He then celebrated his first career win on an intermediate track with smoke-filled burnouts, including one on the backstretch for friends watching from a motorhome on the hillside above the track. Larson said he became emotional as he took the white flag but had composed himself by the time he finished his burnouts.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” said Larson, who again thanked Hendrick for taking “a massive chance on me.”

Hendrick was both thrilled and surprised by the victory in Larson's fourth race with his new team. He figured it would take time for Larson to build a relationship with his new crew chief and find a rhythm in the No. 5 Chevrolet. There is no practice because of pandemic protocols so Larson is learning in real time.