CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kyle Larson will return to NASCAR competition next season driving the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet.
Larson signed a multiyear contract Wednesday with Hendrick that ended his seven-month banishment from NASCAR for using a racial slur while competing online in a virtual race this past spring, when on-track racing was halted during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. He had been considered the top pending free agent in the Cup Series, but after being suspended by NASCAR he lost all his sponsors and was soon fired by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Since using the n-word on April 12, Larson has completed NASCAR's sensitivity training, hired an inclusion training coach and volunteered with the Tony Sanneh Foundation, and he also visited former Olympic track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and her St. Louis community center as well as the site of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed a fatal police shooting of a Black man.
Larson has volunteered at food banks, went with Sanneh to the George Floyd Memorial site in Minneapolis, spent extensive time at the Urban Youth Racing School in Philadelphia and made numerous other visits to both educate himself on racial justice issues and speak of his own experiences.
Larson, who is half-Japanese, also kept racing under the radar: He has won 42 sprint car races in 2020 while suspended from NASCAR.
"Kyle is unquestionably one of the most talented race car drivers in the world," team owner Rick Hendrick said in a release announcing the move Wednesday. "He has championship-level ability and will be a significant addition to our on-track program. More importantly, I have full confidence that he understands our expectations and will be a tremendous ambassador for our team, our partners and NASCAR."
Hendrick added that he has had "many, many conversations" with Larson and is "confident about what's in his heart and his desire to be a champion in all aspects of his life and career. Kyle has done important work over the past six months, and Hendrick Motorsports is going to support those continued efforts."
Hendrick was expected to bid for Larson when his contract expired with Ganassi, who wanted to keep the driver he had groomed from sprint cars to NASCAR's top level. Instead, the 28-year-old's future in NASCAR was jeopardized by his use of the slur during an iRacing event late Easter Sunday. He was finally reinstated by NASCAR last week.
"Mr. Hendrick is one of the people who extended a hand to me over the past six months," Larson said in the team's release. "Our initial conversations were not about racing. He cares about me as a person and wants to see me succeed beyond driving. I can't put into words how grateful I am for the commitment, the faith and the confidence from him and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports."
Larson will be teamed with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who has spent 2019 and 2020 working with seven-time Cup Series season champion Jimmie Johnson, who is retiring from full-time NASCAR competition after this season ends next month.
Hendrick will bring back the storied No. 5 — the first number used when Hendrick Motorsports launched in 1984 — and discontinue use of the No. 88 it acquired for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2008. Geoff Bodine drove the No. 5 to three victories in the 1984 season that was almost Hendrick's first and last in NASCAR.
The No. 5 has made a Hendrick-record 1,129 Cup Series starts, and Larson will be the 10th driver in the car but the first since Kasey Kahne in 2017. NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Terry Labonte won 12 races and the 1996 Cup Series title in a No. 5 car.
"The '5' is special to me. It's the original," Hendrick said in the release. "I view it as Hendrick Motorsports' flagship team in a lot of ways. To bring the car back to the race track is meaningful for my family and for many of our team members and fans."
Larson will be part of a Hendrick lineup that already includes Alex Bowman — who is moving from No. 88 to 48, the number Johnson leaves behind — William Byron (No. 24) and Chase Elliott (No. 9). The average age of the lineup will be 26 years old at the opening of next season.
The four drivers combined have already won 18 Cup Series races and earned 14 playoff berths.
"I'm excited about our roster of young talent," Hendrick said in the release. "We have a team that is built to win races and compete for championships for years to come."