LAS VEGAS — Kyle Larson wasn't sure he'd ever be allowed to return to NASCAR, and if he were, 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 Cup Series ride, 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 work on himself, 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 said on the radio after crossing the finish line.
He then celebrated his first career win on an intermediate track with smoke-filled burnouts, including one on the back stretch for friends watching from a motorhome on the hillside above the track. Larson said he became emotional at the end of the race but had composed himself by the time he finished his celebration inside the car.
"I didn't know if I'd ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again," said Larson, who 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 coronavirus pandemic protocols, so Larson is learning in real time.
"I didn't really expect it to come this quick because I really thought it would take time to jel," Hendrick said by phone after the race. "He's a champion, really, and I am so lucky to have him."
It was the first win for crew chief Cliff Daniels and the first for that crew since 2017 with seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
"He knew deep down inside that he could get back to this level," Daniels said of Larson, who won a Cup Series race for the first time since Oct. 6, 2019, at Dover.
Bubba Wallace, NASCAR's only Black full-time driver, was one of the first competitors to congratulate Larson.
"It meant a lot for Bubba to come to victory lane," Larson said. "He's always believed in me. That was special."
Larson's move to Hendrick was expected to be electric. The 28-year-old is considered one of the top talents in NASCAR but won just six times in six seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing. Paired with mighty Hendrick, everyone suspected Larson would at last reach his full potential.
"He got in a great car, he's a great driver and he's going to make things happen," said Team Penske's Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion who finished second to Larson on Sunday. "That's what he does. He's a wheelman."
The victory gave Hendrick back-to-back victories. William Byron won a week earlier at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so Hendrick has two of its four drivers locked into the playoffs just one month into the new season.
Larson's seventh career win made him the third driver so far who was not part of the 16-driver playoff field last season to grab one of the spots. The season opened with three consecutive surprise winners in Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell and then Byron.
Larson isn't exactly a surprise, and Las Vegas was supposed to be the track in which the large teams finally took control. The 1.5-mile intermediate layout is the bread and butter of the circuit, and the top organizations have the depth and resources to dominate at such tracks.
The top nine finishers Sunday all represented NASCAR's elite teams, with Erik Jones for single-car Richard Petty Motorsports the only surprise with a 10th-place finish.
Keselowski's Ford was followed by hometown driver Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin in Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing. Ryan Blaney was fifth for Penske, and then Martin Truex Jr. and Bell put all four JGR cars in the top seven. Byron was eighth and Penske's Joey Logano was ninth.