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Where next for Kyle Larson?

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 12: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Credit One Bank Chevrolet, speaks with the media during the NASCAR Cup Series 62nd Annual Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway on February 12, 2020 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Being very good at your chosen sport is no longer enough to ensure that you have a long and prosperous career in it. Professional sportspeople don’t just have to be highly skilled – they also have to be role models for their audience, and especially for children. We’ve all seen and heard of incidents of sportspeople being suspended, fined, or even fired for things they’ve said and done on social media in the past. A tweet made during your teenage years can resurface when you’re an adult and cost you sponsorships and career prospects. A careless word in the wrong place at the wrong time can do even more damage – and we’ve just seen Kyle Larson pay a very high price for one stupid, throwaway comment during an online racing event. 

The purpose of this article is not, in any way, an attempt to defend Larson or to take away from what he said. There are some words that you should never use in any context in public, and he used one of them in front of a virtual audience of thousands. It doesn’t matter that the comment was made to a friend, and it doesn’t matter than he didn’t intend any malice by it. Common sense should tell you that as a person in a public position, you should stay away from contentious language, and Larson’s common sense appears to have abandoned him completely at a crucial moment. The next time we see NASCAR teams on the grid, Larson won’t be among them. It might be a very long time before we see him driving for any other team, either. 

Given that the event is still very recent, it might be too early to speculate about what happens next for Larson. At a guess, we’d say he’ll go on an awareness training course, make a large donation to charity, and spend a lot of time talking to others about the harm that racially-sensitive language can do. He’ll also apologize profusely several times. The public will eventually forgive him and accept his return to the sport if they’ve seen him show penitence and regret, but it won’t be a fast process. Larson might be a talented driver, and he’d make a dream ‘get’ for any other team under free agent circumstances, but right now, his brand is too toxic for even the smaller teams to believe he’s worth the risk to their image. We’re not sure we agree with NBC’s assessment that the poor choice of words he stumbled upon will be the final words we ever hear him speak as a NASCAR driver, but we do think it will be at least another season before we see him again. 

The real shame here is that more people than Larson alone have lost their job. If Larson was the only casualty of this situation, then it would be difficult to feel sympathy for him, but Larson is merely the figurehead of a whole racing team that comes along with him. There’s a Team Larson within Chip Ganassi racing who make it possible for him to race and support him while he’s racing. All of them have been affected by the withdrawal of sponsorship from Larson’s sporting endeavors. Almost all of them are now out of work and wondering if or when another team might pick them up, or if Larson’s eventual replacement might be interested in their services. All told, it’s thought that about twenty people are now surplus to requirements because their jobs were tied to Larson’s presence. Larson’s bad move was their bad luck. 

In times to come, this whole tale will be told several times to young up and coming sportspeople as a cautionary story about what can happen when you go online with a live microphone in front of them. If you’re a NASCAR fan with any aspirations of becoming involved in the sport, you might be better advised to invest your time and money in NASCAR-themed online slots rather than NASCAR video games where your opponents can hear you. The thrills and spills of a good casino slots might not compare to the thrills and spills of a NASCAR race simulation, but at least your only opponent is the computer program that drives the online slots game – and that particular opponent doesn’t care what kind of names you might call it when you become frustrated. In fact, perhaps it’s best if professional sportspeople don’t try to re-invent themselves as virtual sports stars at all. Leave the video games to the fans, and focus on your real-life careers. 

With Larson sidelined, the biggest question from a racing point of view is who will get to replace him in his highly-desirable seat – and there are a few contenders for that role. By far and away the most likely is Ross Chastain. Chastain has been classified as an ‘up and coming’ driver for so long now that the description has probably started to irritate him. He’s shown what he can do with a competitive team while filling in for Ryan Newman, and he’s welcome the chance to make the transition to a top-tier seat a permanent one. He nearly took a Chip Ganassi seat for the Xfinity Series but was eventually ruled out because of sponsorship issues. Now his time may finally have come. 

If, for any reason, Chastain is unavailable, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Jamie McMurray replace Larson at least for the short term. Many NASCAR writers have referred to McMurray as ‘retired,’ but it’s not a description he’s ever used himself. He didn’t step down from NASCAR through choice; he stepped down because he was forced out by the arrival of Kurt Busch. He might look happy performing analysis of the sport for Fox, but he’d be a lot happier behind the wheel of a car – and this might be the last chance he ever gets to drive one. We’d be shocked if he said no if his former team approached him. 

Whoever the next man behind the wheel of that car is, it won’t be Kyle Larson. For him, he’s got a long, hard, road to redemption ahead of him – and all we can do is wish him well as he embarks upon it. 

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Posted by on May 5, 2020. Filed under Cup Series,Featured,NASCAR. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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