By Brenley Goertzen and Coy Wire, CNN
Last year, driver Kyle Larson watched the NASCAR Cup Series Championship from afar.
This year, in one of the most dominant racing seasons seen in over a decade, he overtook his teammate and former winner Chase Elliott to claim the sport’s ultimate prize.
After 312 laps at the Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, Larson secured the championship title to cap off a year-long pursuit to redeem himself on and off the track.
“That journey of last year, getting to this point, was difficult,” Larson told CNN Sports.
“But then, all the success we had this year made it all rewarding and something that I can’t believe. The last 18 months … the lowest-lows to the highest-highs … have been crazy.”
In April 2020, Larson was suspended from NASCAR, losing both his sponsors and his ride with Chip Ganassi Racing after using the n-word during a virtual racing event.
Barred indefinitely for making the racial slur, Larson took intensive steps to educate himself. After six months, the racing governing body approved his application to be reinstated.
Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, added Larson to his team following the reinstatement, and Larson went on to have his first win for the team at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March.
“I was accepting of the fact that I probably won’t ever race in it again,” the 29-year-old Larson explained. “I’m thankful that I did get that second chance and I was able to do good things through it.”
During 2020, NASCAR required Larson to complete sensitivity training as a condition for reinstatement. He began working with Doug Harris, CEO of the Kaleidoscope Group, who served as his diversity coach.
Larson also worked alongside former four-time Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and retired pro soccer player Tony Sanneh, whose Minnesota-based foundation is focused on youth development and empowerment around the Twin Cities metro area.
“I’ve learned so much ever since that night, getting to talk to so many different African-Americans and learning their experiences.
“It just gives me a totally different perspective on life and what goes on in this world,” he said.
Larson also spoke about his discussions with Black racers like Willy T. Ribbs and Bubba Wallace, who recently made history when he became the second Black driver to win NASCAR’s Cup Series race.
“I’m glad that he, as well as so many people, were able to forgive me,” Larson said of Wallace.
Larson is the first driver of Asian descent to win a Cup Series Championship. His Japanese roots trace to his mother, whose parents, Larson says, were held in internment camps.
“It’s definitely a great honor to be the first Asian-American to win a NASCAR Cup Series Championship.”
“It’s not something that I set out to accomplish in that way, but now that I have, I know that I hold a much bigger role in the Asian community,” he said.
Larson is also a member of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative, designed to increase inclusivity in the sport and in various industry roles. He is now one of the program’s first graduates to make it into the NASCAR Cup Series.
“I’ve had a lot of success these last two years, and it almost feels like I’m in some sort of dream.”
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