In just his fourth start since being suspended most of the 2020 Cup Series season, Larson took control of a wild race on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and cruised to victory in the Pennzoil 400.
Larson, 28, was fired from his Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 team last April for using a racial slur during the broadcast of an iRacing event and was also indefinitely suspended by NASCAR at the time.
He was hired by Hendrick Motorsports to drive its No. 5 Chevrolet last October beginning with the 2021 season and was cleared to return to NASCAR racing activities beginning on Jan. 1.
By late in the race, Larson had out-dueled Denny Hamlin for the lead and nearly blew it when he missed the entry to pit road during his green-flag pit stop.
Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet was so fast, he still came out with a more than 1.5-second lead after the stops and with no further caution flags, he topped Brad Keselowski by more 3.5 seconds at the finish.
“It was so much fun to drive. I could go where I wanted to. Drafting early in the runs was tough,” Larson said. “Thank you so much Mr. H (Rick Hendrick, team owner), Jeff Gordon and Hendrick Motorsports for the amazing opportunity I’ve been gifted. This is definitely special.
“I know this is Rick’s most special paint scheme for obvious reasons and it’s just an honor to grab (the win) our first time out. I’m just blessed. Thanks everybody for coming out and everybody watching on TV.
“That was some fun racing on the restarts. I hope everybody enjoyed, I know I did. I had fun racing Brad and Denny and everybody. Tried not to get in their way when I missed my green-flag stop but we were able to have a good enough car to hold them all off.”
The win is Larson’s first since the 2019 season, seventh of his Cup Series career and first-ever on a 1.5-mile intermediate track. Larson had been considered a favorite to win the Cup series’ first dirt race in more than 50 years later this month at Bristol, Tenn.
Said Larson’s crew chief, Cliff Daniels, who earned his first career win: “It feels amazing. God is so good. It’s been such a journey for this team for a lot of reasons.
“I owe so much to Jimmie (Johnson) and so much to Chad (Knaus) for what they’ve done. Kyle drove a great race, the crew was lights out on pit road. Just so thankful.”
Kyle Busch finished third, Hamlin fourth and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five.
Completing the top-10 were Truex, Christopher Bell, William Byron, Joey Logano and Erik Jones.
Following the break between Stages 2 and 3, the lead-lap cars all pit with Larson the first off pit road.
On the restart on Lap 168, Larson was followed by Hamlin, Alex Bowman, Truex and Bell.
Chase Elliott spun on the backstretch and tagged Kurt Busch in the process to bring out a caution on Lap 170. Hamlin had just completed a pass of Larson to retake the lead.
Hamlin remained out front on the restart on Lap 175 followed by Larson, Truex and Kyle Busch.
Aric Almirola tagged the wall in Turn 2 on Lap 179 which dropped debris on the track and forced another caution.
Several lead-lap cars pit under the caution but Hamlin stayed out and remained the leader. When the race returned to green on Lap 185, Hamlin was followed by Truex, Blaney and Byron.
Truex ran down Hamlin after the restart and took the lead for the first time in the race at the start of Lap 186.
In five laps, Larson – who pit for fresh tires on the previous caution – had made his way from 17th to sixth. He entered the top-five on Lap 191.
Hamlin went to the inside of Truex off Turn 4 on Lap 192 to retake the lead. Larson moved into second on Lap 195.
After hounding his rear-bumper for several laps, Larson finally got around Hamlin to retake the lead on Lap 206.
With 50 laps remaining in the race, Larson had opened a 1.4-second lead over Keselowski. Hamlin was third, Blaney fourth and Truex fifth.
On Lap 221, several lead-lap cars kicked off a final round of green-flag pit stops to take new tires and fuel to make it to the finish of the race.
Larson missed the entrance to pit road the first time and came back around to make his stop.
Once the cycle of stops was completed on Lap 238, Larson held about a 1.5-second advantage over Keselowski, followed by Hamlin, Truex and Kyle Busch.
With 25 laps remaining, Larson had built a 1.8-second lead over Keselowski. Hamlin was third, Kyle Busch fourth and Truex rounded out the top-five.
With 10 laps to go, Larson’s lead over Keselowski stayed steady at around 2.5 seconds. Kyle Busch had moved up to third.
Larson grabbed the lead before a late-stage round of green-flag pit stops and expanded his advantage, cruising to the Stage 2 victory over Keselowski.
Hamlin was third, Byron fourth and Blaney rounded out the top-five.
Following the break between Stages 1 and 2, the lead-lap cars all pit with Hamlin the first off pit road. Tyler Reddick was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to restart the race from the rear of the field.
The race returned to green on Lap 88 with Hamlin out front followed by Keselowski, Bowman, Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto.
Keselowski retook the lead from Hamlin shortly after the restart. Larson ran him down and returned to the top spot on Lap 107.
On Lap 123, several teams hit pit road to start a round of green-flag pit stops to get new tires and fuel to make it to the finish of the stage.
With 25 laps to go in the stage, five cars still had to pit and Larson ran sixth, first among the cars that had completed their stop.
Once the cycle of stops completed on Lap 147, Larson with a more than 5-second lead over Keselowski followed by Hamlin, Blaney and Byron.
With 10 laps remaining in the stage, Larson continued to hold a large lead over both Keselowski and Hamlin.
Keselowski powered around Elliott with one lap remaining and held on to take the Stage 1 win, his first stage victory of the 2021 season.
Blaney was third, Hamlin fourth and Bowman rounded out the top-five.
Harvick started on the pole but Byron used a three-wide move off Turn 4 to lead Lap 1.
Just 15 laps into the race, Byron had a small but consistent lead over Larson and Elliott third as all four Hendrick cars ran in the top-seven.
Elliott finally worked his way around Byron on Lap 20 to take the race lead for the first time. Byron dropped to second and Larson ran third.
On Lap 26, NASCAR displayed a competition caution to allow teams to check tire wear. The lead-lap cars all pit with Larson the first off pit road.
Bubba Wallace was penalized for speeding on pit road and had to restart from the rear of the field. When the race returned to green on Lap 31, Larson was followed by Hamlin, Truex, Keselowski and Bowman.
Hamlin powered around Larson off Turn 2 after the restart to grab the lead for the first time.
Larson got back around Hamlin on Lap 44 to reclaim the lead as Keselowski moved into third.
On Lap 46, NASCAR threw a caution for a piece of debris on the track near the start/finish line.
Most of the lead-lap cars pit but Larson stayed out and remained in the lead. Hamlin was the first off pit road. On the restart on Lap 52, Larson was followed by Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Logano grabbed the lead on Lap 53 only to see Keselowski take it from him on Lap 54. And Logano powered around to reclaim the lead on Lap 56.
With 20 laps remaining in the first stage, Logano remained out front but one lap later, Elliott got around him to reclaim the top spot.
Keselowski reclaimed the lead on Lap 72 as the racing up front remained wild and fluid. Elliott mounted a charge and passed Keselowski on Lap 74 to move back out front.