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It’s been 33 days since Kyle Larson made a poor joke about the flu as fears about the coronavirus suspended the NBA season and President Donald Trump made an Oval Office address about the pandemic.
As we’ve all seen over the past month, it’s clearly not the flu. Things have changed significantly for all of us. And now, because of Larson’s use of the n-word on Sunday night during an iRacing event, his life and professional career as a NASCAR driver is in a state of tumult that seemed unfathomable just hours ago as Chip Ganassi Racing fired Larson on Tuesday morning.
McDonald’s and Credit One, Larson’s two primary sponsors in the Cup Series, both issued statements disassociating themselves with the 27-year-old Monday afternoon. The sponsors’ decisions came hours after Larson’s CGR and NASCAR had both suspended him. NASCAR’s suspension includes the condition that Larson must complete sensitivity training.
If this were a stick-and-ball sport, Larson’s path back to action would be fairly straightforward. But this is NASCAR, where sponsors foot the bill.
Neither Credit One nor McDonald’s was going to ignore Larson’s actions. And while Larson may be one of the best drivers in the Cup Series and was set to be the most coveted free agent in recent memory, the decision between dropping him and standing by him was a no-brainer. No one is going to stand by a spokesperson using a racial slur in the year 2020.
Quite frankly, that’s the way it should be. Larson’s use of the word Sunday night during a virtual NASCAR race sure felt far too easy. Sure, he might have been thinking that he was saying the word on a private channel and not on a public channel accessed by all drivers and available to anyone watching the race. So what? The distinction between a private conversation and a public one doesn’t change the fact that the slur was used in the first place.
In an apology video posted Monday afternoon, Larson said he made a mistake and said a word that should never, ever have been said. But it also begs the question: If he’s saying it casually in an iRacing race, when else is he saying it? It sure seems implausible that Larson simply chose to say an offensive word that he never says while talking during a sim race.
Larson’s intent in this instance doesn’t matter either. No matter the intent, the outcome is the same. Larson said the word. Now he has to face the consequences.
Those consequences will likely turn out to significantly alter — or even halt — his Cup Series career.
Without Credit One or McDonald’s paying Chip Ganassi Racing to sponsor a car driven by Larson, the team had no financial incentive to put him in a car. It’s nearly impossible to run a competitive car in the Cup Series without sponsors paying millions of dollars. Why would CGR have wanted to spend millions it couldn’t recoup to stand by Larson while knowing full well that no major sponsor would want to come in and fill the void left by his two previous sponsors?
Why would another team want to sign Larson ahead of the 2021 season at this point either? Larson looked to have his choice of available top-tier rides for next season, including the opportunity to succeed Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports.
But Hendrick Motorsports fields Chevrolets and the sponsor of the No. 48 car, Ally, was first founded as the financing arm of General Motors. Monday afternoon, Chevrolet announced that it had suspended its relationship with Larson indefinitely.
Larson now has no leverage with Hendrick or any other top-level Cup Series team that may want his services. It’s a harsh reality.
At 27, Larson has a long racing career ahead of him. He loves racing anything and everything and won the coveted Chili Bowl for the first time in his sprint car career earlier in 2020. He’s going to get a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance.
No one is entitled to a second chance in quick fashion or on their own terms though. If racing competitively at North America’s top level was possible without a multi-million dollar corporate sponsor or three, Larson’s NASCAR job prospects would still be plentiful.
But that’s not the way it works in a racing series full of teams desperate for corporate sponsorship. Larson is going to have to earn the right to get a second chance. And that may mean he has to spend some significant time out of the Cup Series for that second chance to materialize.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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