Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart sees a path back to the Cup Series for Kyle Larson, so is that a hint the two will be together in 2021?
Tony Stewart has always had the ear of NASCAR officials, whether or not there was merit to his “suggestions.” He has never been shy about sharing his opinions, and he has a new one, getting Kyle Larson back into the Cup Series. So, by being the first one to advocate publicly for the reinstatement of the 28-year old, is that a hint Stewart wants him at Stewart-Haas Racing?
Larson remains suspended by the racing body. He has also not made a formal request for reinstatement, either. But Stewart’s voice carries some weight in the industry.
“The biggest key is just NASCAR letting him back,” Stewart told The Athletic Wednesday. “Once NASCAR does that, it’ll be a lot easier for the teams and sponsors to embrace him as well. I guarantee there’s genuine interest out there for him, it’s just a matter of that first domino has to fall.”
The ’genuine interest’ quip might have something to do with possible open seats in his four-car stable. Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer are both without a contract for next year, but Almirola is likely to get an extension. Bowyer, on the other hand, meh. If Larson applies, then gets back in the game, Stewart-Haas Racing is not about to let him sign elsewhere. His talent is undeniable.
“I think the biggest injustice would be to not give the kid a chance to make it right,” Stewart added.
Steve Letarte, the former successful crew chief turned NASCAR broadcaster for NBC Sports, made a bold prediction in February that Larson would have a “pot of gold” waiting if he had a good season. But that was before he uttered an epithet on a live iRacing event that saw the rainbow vanish before even knowing where the pot was.
The chase for Larson’s services will be in demand if reinstated but make no mistake, his gaffe likely cost him millions, at least initially. He will not get the kind of money the market would typically bear had he not been suspended. But on top of that, the financial uncertainty the pandemic has wrought on the sport. Teams may be very conservative in spending looking toward next year.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Before COVID-19 put the brakes on the season, Team Penske inked Ryan Blaney to a multi-year deal. After it, Brad Keselowski re-ups with Penske for one-year? That might have something to do with Austin Cindric being in the team’s pipeline, but it was still a surprise considering he is having another terrific season. Three wins this year, 33 in his career, and at least one victory in every season since 2011.
The penalty handed down to Larson by NASCAR was severe. It was equivalent to being sent to prison for jaywalking based on what happened to Jeremy Clements in 2013. In an otherwise unremarkable career, Clements, who never made it to Cup, was back after two weeks for completing sensitivity training. Larson remains an outcast even though he did the same thing back in May. And don’t forget, he also lost his job.
Was Larson shown the door because he uttered his epithet on a live event? Or did Clements get pardoned because he owned his team? It is a bit strange that two similar infractions got handled quite differently.
NASCAR has done remarkable things with race relations with the banning of the confederate flag and standing by Bubba Wallace as he has become the voice of change within the sport. But what happened to Larson was unparalleled. And unfair. They had already set a precedent with Clements, and yet, it dropped a hauler on Larson’s head. Losing his job wasn’t enough?
Tony Stewart was right. The biggest injustice is keeping Kyle Larson from righting a wrong.
But the more significant injustice has been keeping him out of a car this long.
Stewart-Haas Racing will surely be calling once NASCAR stops being a bully.
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