Almost from the moment in November when the seven-time champion driver Jimmie Johnson announced that heâd be retiring after the 2020 NASCAR Cup season, the focus shiftedÂ to the lucky guy who might replace Johnson for Hendrick Motorsports, an elite stock-car team.
The top candidate was, and still is, Kyle Larson, a 27-year-old driver from Elk Grove, Calif., who has won six of 155 Cup races, with four victories in the 2017 season, for the owner Chip Ganassi. Larson won one race and made it to the final eight in the playoffs in 2019.
He has been regarded as a talented driver for years, and he offers what up-and-coming white-bread drivers canât: Larson, whose mother is Japanese-American, is probably the most famous graduate of NASCARâs Drive for Diversity program, which still rolls along. NASCAR could use a spark.
Even when recorded and fast-forwarded through the commercials, the 2Âœ-hour NASCAR awards show on the NBC Sports Network last week was pretty dismal, and not just because co-host Rutledge Wood wore a red plaid suit that looked more like a pair of flannel jammies.
As a rule, post-season sports awards shows are not worth watching, especially when an NFL game is on at the same time, but NASCARâs show from Nashville was not so great for optics. An overwhelming and disconcerting percentage of people on camera was white.
There were only two African-Americans featured: former Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George, who introduced four playoff drivers, and Todd Smith, the managing director for Fuel for Success who was a finalist for the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award.
Larson and Aric Almirola, an American driver of Cuban heritage, were featured, briefly, but Bubba Wallace, the only full-time African-American Cup driver, finished too far out of the running to be included in the show, and few minority drivers are coming up through the ranks.
Whether Hendrick Motorsports brings on Larson will, of course, also be determined by other factors, namely his talent and his appeal to sponsors. But, after a season in which the Mexican driver Daniel Suarez lost his top-tier job, NASCAR has some catching-up to do. They need people to buy tickets and watch races on TV.
Larsonâs contract with Ganassi runs out after the 2020 season, so it was only natural for him to be pegged to the opening when Johnson parks it. HMS has the popular Chase Elliott, but he accounted for six of the teamâs seven victories in 288 overall races in 2018 and 2019.
Moreover, HMS is linked to Chevrolet, who has finished third, or last, in the manufacturerâs standings and failed to place a driver in the four-driver championship race for two years in a row. The Toyota team owned by Joe Gibbs had three drivers in the final.
So Rick Hendrick, the teamâs genial 70-year-old owner, has a big hire to make. There appear to be a couple of snags. Larson had a run-in with Hendrick early in the 2019 season, when he said, jokingly, that Hendrickâs team âplays gamesâ with NASCAR rules. Larson later apologized to Hendrick.
Larson also likes dirt-track racing in his spare time, which Hendrick does not like so much. He took that activity away from one of his drivers, Kasey Kahne, after he wrecked in a dirt-car race. Larson might stick with Ganassi, anyway. Ganassi gave Larson his first big shot.
âWherever I end up, that is going to be a priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,â Larson said last week before the NASCAR Awards Show. âI think teams understand that is what I love. Weâll see. I think Chip definitely continuing to let me run and then also letting me run more than I have in the last few years has been awesome.â
Hendrick does not have to make a decision any time soon, and Larson said he is focusing on doing his best for Ganassi in 2020. Johnson has said after his second straight winless season that he is aiming for no less than his eighth Cup title.
After Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced that 2017 would be his last season as a driver, Hendrick promoted Alex Bowman, who won a race and made the playoffs in 2019. Bowman is a nice young man with a promising future, but Hendrick needs to belt this one out of the park.
The workplace has been flooded lately with white guys, and Larson â or Bubba Wallace, for that matter â also offer something a little different: interesting back stories. With NASCAR adding four âpremier partnersâ as anchoring sponsors last week, Hendrickâs decision, with help from Larson, looms as the most important in NASCAR in 2020.