By Jerry Bonkowski
After winning a series-high 10 races, capped off with his first NASCAR Cup championship, one question remains for Kyle Larson:
What does he do for an encore in 2022?
My Online Viewer’s Guide and A Lifetime In NASCAR podcast compadre Ben White believes Larson can eventually win seven Cup championships in his career!
Frankly, I can’t really disagree with my buddy Ben. While I fully believe Larson can win multiple championships – I kind of put my limit at as many as four or five Cup titles – he has all the elements to indeed go on and fulfill Ben’s prophecy.
Larson is only 29 years old. The Elk Grove, California native is just barely moving into his prime as a race car driver. I can see him driving for at least another 15 more years, which makes Ben’s prophecy all the more possible.
And let’s face it, there’s an old adage in racing that winning the first championship is always the hardest. Right now, Larson has one title down and six more to go to reach Ben’s prediction. If any driver can win up to seven championships in total, it’s likely Larson.
Last week, prior to the season-ending and championship-deciding race at Phoenix Raceway, NASCAR Hall of Famer Tony Stewart paid Larson perhaps the biggest compliment he – or any other driver – could ever receive.
“He’s the best race car driver I’ve ever seen,” Stewart said of Larson.
That’s not just high praise, it’s also a prediction of sorts that Larson is only getting started. With his youth and his experience to date, and barring any significant injury, he should be able to remain at the top of his game for at least 10 years or more.
I’m ready to crown him the 2022 champ, as well, he’s THAT good.
But admittedly, I do have one concern.
Without sounding like a Debby Downer, what about Larson’s alter ego, namely, dirt track/sprint car driver? Almost every NASCAR fan knows Larson’s enjoyment of racing sprint cars in his off time from Cup racing.
In a way, it’s his way of blowing off steam. Call it a hobby, almost, if you will.
But now that he’s a Cup champion, Larson will have many more responsibilities placed upon him not just by NASCAR, but also Hendrick Motorsports and all of the sponsors on his No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro SS.
If Larson thought he had a busy dance card before winning the 2021 championship, he hasn’t seen anything yet.
For example, he has spent a number of off-seasons racing sprint cars in Australia and New Zealand. He skipped last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and may also bypass this year because both countries are maintaining a stringent protocol.
But if and when Larson is able to go back down under, he’s almost a lock to do so. Not surprisingly, when he has raced in those countries in the past, he’s dominated the performances.
Yet, race car drivers overseas are a different bunch and breed. Even more, most do not have the talent or opportunities that their counterparts in the U.S. have. That’s why Rick Hendrick may have to step in and tell Larson that he’s going to have to curtail his sprint car exploits, be they in the U.S. or across the Pacific.
Hendrick obviously has a lot of money invested in Larson. He expects high dividends each year and he certainly got a huge payout this season with Larson’s championship. Plus, there’s a good chunk of Hendrick Motorsports’ 500-plus employee base that is significantly reliant upon Larson’s talent, expertise and success.
In other words, as Kyle goes, so too goes HMS.
But it only takes one mistake by another driver in a sprint car race and Larson could see his racing career significantly impacted. As I mentioned to Ben on this past week’s “A Lifetime In NASCAR” podcast – Episode 38 – we lost a great driver who had so much promise and potential ahead of him when Bryan Clauson, only 27, was killed in a 2016 sprint car race in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Clauson was involved in a crash where his car flipped several times after making contact with another car, and then was struck by yet another car. He was airlifted to a trauma center in critical condition and, sadly, died the following day.
Certainly, no one could have anticipated such a tragedy. But let’s face it, while they have improved safety since Clauson’s tragic death, sprint car racing is still nowhere near as safe as NASCAR, IndyCar and even NHRA are.
I’m not begrudging Larson going forward into 2022 and continuing to race sprint cars. Even his former boss, Chip Ganassi, essentially gave his driver free reign to do whatever he wanted, just as long as he still performed to Ganassi’s high expectations whenever Larson competed in a Cup race.
Rick Hendrick is cut from a different cloth than Ganassi, though.
While he certainly wants his drivers to have some latitude in their non-Cup activities, seeing what Larson accomplished this season – and the even higher expectations going forward after winning this year’s championship – if Mr. “H” has to be the bad guy and prevent Larson from racing in sprint cars, would anyone really be surprised?
I’m not going to say Larson will go out and achieve what his HMS predecessor, Jimmie Johnson, did – be it winning five titles in a row like JJ did from 2006 to 2010, or tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships (seven) – but show me one other current driver who has the overall potential Larson has.
Sure, you can say Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and maybe a handful of others, but 2021 proved to even the most ardent of Larson’s non-believers that given the right team, the right equipment, the right owner and the right personnel around him, anything not only was possible, but he made it all come true.
When he drove for HMS, Johnson was unable to do any sidelight activities (although he did drive an F1 car in an exhibition several years ago, which also laid the groundwork for his current foray into the IndyCar world).
Sure, Johnson would probably have loved to go back to his roots and race an off-road vehicle or maybe even a motorcycle, but Hendrick wouldn’t allow it because he was protecting his investment.
It was the same for almost every other driver in the HMS stable over the years, including Jeff Gordon and others (although Kasey Kahne in sprint cars and Kyle Busch in Xfinity, Trucks and late models were given a bit of latitude)
I think you’ll see Hendrick eventually put the brakes on Larson, not because he necessarily wants to, but because he has to. Yes, Rick Hendrick is a died-in-the-wool racer himself. He knows how much drivers thrive and need to race as much as possible. In a way, it’s kind of like breathing air for many of them.
Even though Kyle definitely has two racing loves in his life, he’s likely going to have to choose one. And after what he accomplished this year, and what he has the potential to accomplish going forward, it should be an easy – albeit still painful – decision to make.
But hey, Larson does have one option that can allow him to keep driving sprint cars on the side and not have to worry about getting hurt:
With all the money he earned for being a Cup champion this year, Larson can now afford perhaps the biggest, greatest and fastest esports computer setup there is.
I think Mr. “H” would agree.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski