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Back in 2020, Kyle Larson was considered damaged goods after using a racial slur on a livestream during a virtual race. He was suspended from the sport indefinitely. His future in NASCAR was uncertain.

Fast forward to 2023.

Larson has won four times and is considered a favorite to win his second Cup Series championship in three seasons. Naturally, the move to Hendrick Motorsports and subsequent success has grown his fan following. But the No. 5 team has also maintained one particular sponsorship since Larson’s arrival that has appealed to the old-school race fan, and it’s interestingly connected to his mistake in 2020.

Kyle Larson has excelled at Hendrick Motorsports

Kyle Larson earned six wins over six seasons with Chip Ganassi Racing before his suspension in 2020. His breakout year came in 2017 when he recorded 15 top-5s, including four trips to Victory Lane.

Since joining HMS in 2021, the 31-year-old has taken his racing to another level. That first season with the new team, Larson posted historic numbers, winning an impressive 10 times (not including the All-Star Race) and, more importantly, closing the deal in the Championship 4 race and winning the title.  

In 2022, the No. 5 team had a drop in performance, which was all but expected considering the outrageous numbers from the year before. He came up short in his title defense and bowed out in the Round of 8, scoring a seventh-place finish in the final points standings. 

Through the first 33 races of the 2023 campaign, Larson has already recorded more wins than he did a year ago, and it could have been more. He’s had multiple near-misses this season, where he was the best car but fell short for various reasons. Kansas and Texas are two of the most recent.

Already locked into the Championship 4 in Phoenix, there’s every reason to believe that Larson, crew chief Cliff Daniels, and the entire No. 5 crew will be prepared for the final race and have a solid chance of replicating their results from two seasons ago when they won the race and the championship. 

Larson has proven successful to the Hendrick auto business

Despite his on-track performance, sponsors haven’t necessarily been beating down the door at Hendrick Motorsports to partner with the driver. His 2020 incident has continued to be a deterrent. 

Fortunately, it’s worked out for Larson because one of Rick Hendrick’s businesses, Hendrick Automotive Group (HAG), stepped up initially and has been the team’s primary sponsor for the last two seasons, except for a couple of races. 

While that partnership has been considered one of convenience because companies shied away from sponsoring the driver, Sports Business Journal reported that the sponsorship has proven more fruitful than many might expect. 

“I have these conversations with [Rick Hendrick] in terms of results and I owe him an ROI summary just like any other summary with a CEO or owner,” Brian Johnson, vice president of marketing for Hendrick Automotive, explained. “He’s very engaged, but I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that he has never once told us to sponsor the No. 5 car. We want to sponsor the No. 5 car, our COO who runs our automotive group believes in this program, our operations VP believes in it, and we see the results coming in.”

Interestingly, Johnson indicated that there’s a direct correlation between traffic spikes on the website and NASCAR-related events, including the largest traffic days of both 2022 and 2023. In ’22, it came the day of the Daytona 500. One year later, when the company unveiled its Darlington throwback paint scheme in May. 

“We tend to see these big traffic spikes when we do something cool, and when I say spikes I mean two to three times of our normal website traffic, which is tremendous for us, and we definitely see it when he does really well [on the track],” Johnson said.

Why Kyle Larson appeals to the old-school fan

Kyle Larson drives car.
Kyle Larson in the No. 5 car during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Busch Light Clash at The Coliseum on Feb. 4, 2023 | Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Larson’s on-track performance is appealing and a primary reason for the resulting success with the Hendrick automotive business. But an additional element appeals to old-school fans. Because HAG is the main sponsor for most races, there’s brand consistency. The car is adorned in the same red, white, and blue paint scheme every race weekend.

Remember that? The days when a driver ran in a car with the same paint scheme for the entire season, allowing everyone to identify the driver with the brand and vice versa. In other words, when the No. 5 car isn’t leading the pack, fans can still easily identify it regardless of where he is on the track.

The NASCAR business model has changed. That’s obvious. It’s now much more challenging for a team to run with a single sponsor for the entire year.

Teams are hoping the stalled television contract discussions will eventually come to fruition and produce a financial windfall that will somewhat help move away from the sponsor-dependent model. Should that happen, more cars might run a single scheme like Larson in the future. That will not only be a blast from the past but also a good thing for NASCAR and its fans.

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