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Larson celebrates return with 1st win since suspension

By JENNA FRYER

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Kyle Larson wasn’t sure he’d ever race again in NASCAR, and if he could, 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 job, 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 self-work, 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 radioed to boss Rick Hendrick after crossing the finish line.

He then celebrated his first career win on an intermediate track with smoke-filled burnouts, including one on the backstretch for friends watching from a motorhome on the hillside above the track. Larson said he became emotional as he took the white flag but had composed himself by the time he finished his burnouts.

“I didn’t know if I’d ever have an opportunity to win a NASCAR race again,” said Larson, who again 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 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 gel,” Hendrick said by phone after the race. “He’s a champion, really, and I am so lucky to have him.”

Bubba Wallace, NASCAR’s only Black fulltime 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.

Larson 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,” runner-up Brad Keselowski said. “That’s what he does. He’s a wheelman.”

Mario Andretti on Twitter called Larson’s victory the most entertaining NASCAR race he’d ever watched and praised Larson for driving “the race of his life” and Hendrick — “Ol’ Rick knew what he was doing when he hired him.”

The victory gave Hendrick back-to-back victories. William Byron won last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so Hendrick has two of its four drivers locked into the playoffs just one month into the new season.

It was the first win for crew chief Cliff Daniels, and first for that crew since 2017 with Jimmie Johnson.

“He knew deep down inside that he could get back to this level,” Daniels said of Larson.

Larson’s last victory was Oct. 6, 2019, at Dover.

His 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 is the bread-and-butter of the NASCAR schedule and the top organizations have the depth and resources to dominate the circuits.

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.

Brad Keselowski of Team Penske was second in a Ford and 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 defending race winner Joey Logano was ninth for Penske.

Allmendinger wins Xfinity race

LAS VEGAS — AJ Allmendinger raced to the first victory of his comeback season by passing Daniel Hemric on the final restart in the Xfinity Series race Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Allmendinger this year agreed to his first fulltime season since 2018 in a deal with Kaulig Racing. He’s friends with team owner Matt Kaulig and has slowly been lured back into NASCAR as a favor to the team.

He was Kaulig’s “Trophy Hunter” last year in 11 races he was entered solely to win for the team. Kaulig then convinced Allmendinger to run for the Xfinity Series championship while also helping the organization move to Cup next season.

The victory was the sixth in the Xfinity Series for Allmendinger, who retired at the end of the 2018 season rather than drive for an uncompetitive team.

Allmendinger was in tears when he climbed from his winning Chevrolet.

“It’s emotional, hell, you don’t know when you are going to do this again,” Allmendinger said. “You never know if this is the last one. Matt Kaulig, I love you man.”

Kaulig Racing has eight Xfinity Series victories since its 2016 formation. Four of the wins were by Allmendinger.

Allmendinger said he holds Kaulig in such high regard that he’s often ill before races from the pressure to deliver for the team.

“I want to win so bad for Matt every week. It’s hard to put into words what he means to me and truly how bad I want to win for him,” Allmendinger said. “It’s the same thing as wanting to win for Roger Penske. It means that much to me that he believes in me. Thank you for this opportunity because I don’t take it for granted.”

Allmendinger led 44 laps, including the final 13 after passing Hemric on the restart.

Hemric finished second and led a race-high 74 laps in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. Brandon Jones, his JGR teammate, was third.

Austin Cindric was fourth in a Ford for Team Penske and Noah Gragson, the Las Vegas native, was fifth in a Chevrolet for JR Motorsports.

Gragson was followed across the finish line by teammates Michael Annett and Josh Berry in three top-10s for JRM. Annett is mourning the unexpected death of his father earlier this week.

IndyCar driver Santino Ferrucci, in his second NASCAR race, finished 13th.

Ty Dillon has had a terrible run through three races with Joe Gibbs Racing. A broken radiator ended his race last week at Homestead and he crashed with 20 laps remaining Saturday when the battery in his spotter’s radio died.

Drew Herring was switching over to a new battery and not able to inform Dillon he was not clear to move up a lane when Dillon improperly cut in front of Brett Moffitt. Dillon was additionally penalized two laps when too many crew members went over the wall to fix the damage and Dillon finished 30th.

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