Playing for profit: Kyle Larson’s dominant run reveals hypocrisy in NASCAR

So, NASCAR is in an odd place right now. In the last year or so, the sport has increased its efforts to promote social justice initiatives. Through this year of supposed progress, NASCAR’s main selling point was its commitment to racial equity and diversity within the sport. 

The only Black driver in NASCAR’s top division, Bubba Wallace, was met with an outpour of support after a noose was found in his team’s trailer after a race last July. The uncovering of the noose prompted an FBI investigation and was a black eye on the sport after months of supposed work combatting racism. 

A month prior to the noose incident, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag and its imagery from NASCAR races and events. What spurred the sudden commitment to combating racial injustice in a notoriously conservative sport? It was likely a combination of two things. The first was likely a response to the ongoing social justice movement, as increased attention was paid to racial injustice across the United States in the summer of 2020.

Secondly, and more importantly, one of NASCAR’s top drivers Kyle Larson was caught saying a racial slur on a livestream in April 2020. So, to summarize: Larson gets caught in April; the confederate flag was banned in June and Wallace’s noose incident and the ensuing outpour of support happened in July. 

This four-month period likely spurred more progress within the sport of NASCAR than the previous two decades combined. Larson’s sponsors dropped him; his team owner released him and it looked like someone was actually paying the consequences for racist behavior in the sport of NASCAR. Boy, were we wrong. 

In October 2020, just six months after Larson’s seemingly career-ending mistake, he was reinstated to the sport. Weeks later, Larson signed with one of NASCAR’s strongest teams Hendrick Motorsports. Not only did Larson serve a half-ass punishment, but he arguably failed upwards, signing for a better team than he was with prior to the live-stream incident. 

Since Larson’s reinstatement, he’s been nothing short of dominant. To the dismay and disappointment of many fans, Larson is basically the face of the sport right now. Early in the season, when Larson was still completely unsponsored and struggling to compete, it was easy to ignore his presence. 

In the last month or so, things have changed dramatically and NASCAR is in a precarious position. Larson has won three straight points races. He also won NASCAR’s annual All-Star Race and claimed its $1 million winner’s prize. Larson leads the circuit in points, wins and laps led by a significant margin. He’s the overwhelming favorite to win the title, and sponsors have ended their hiatus from advertising with Larson. 

We all knew someone was going to take the bait at some point, as corporate America is most certainly not above taking the opportunity to buy low on advertising space on Larson’s equipment. What I didn’t expect was companies to give in his quickly (looking at you, Valvoline).

NASCAR is in a dangerous spot. One year ago, it looked like Larson’s career could be over, as if NASCAR had finally taken a step in the right direction. A year later, the worst case scenario is here. The man who used one of the most offensive words in the English language while expressing frustration in a video game stream is now the face of the sport in just over a year’s time.

So who’s in the wrong here? How did this happen? 

Well, for starters, there’s a lot of things NASCAR could have done differently. They could have kept Larson on the sideline longer or forced him to agree to a stipulation where he was required to promote social justice upon his reinstatement. Instead, Larson is enjoying what seems like a redemption tour, proving his “doubters” wrong and almost playing the role of the victimized athlete striving for vindication. 

It’s not like Larson’s contract ran out with Chip Ganassi Racing and Ganassi slighted him and chose another driver over him. Larson said something racist and had to face consequences for his words. He’s not a victim. It feels woefully dismissive for the sport of NASCAR, its broadcasting partners and its drivers to celebrate Larson as some sort of martyr who deserves his success because of overwhelming hardship. The sport of NASCAR does not have to celebrate Larson regardless of his dominance. His ability as a driver does not take away from the mistakes he’s made in the very recent past. According to NASCAR, car owner Rick Hendrick and Larson’s new sponsor Valvoline, racism isn’t a deal-breaker. So much for progress.

David Ramirez is a rising senior writing about the intersection of sports and business. He is also an associate managing editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Playing for Profit” runs every other Wednesday.