The case could be made that this was the greatest single season in modern motorsports history.
To fully appreciate what Kyle Larson accomplished in 2021, you probably have to harken back to AJ Foyt in 1967 when he won the Indianapolis 500 and claimed USAC National Championship triumphs at Springfield, DuQuoin, Trenton and Sacremento back when the precursor to INDYCAR competed on pavement and dirt.
That season, Super Tex also won a USAC Stock Car race at the Milwaukee Mile with a USAC Sprint Car victory at Ascot Raceway Park and the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Dan Gurney. He also led laps in the Daytona 500.
Credit INDYCAR communications rep Arni Sribhen for drawing the parallel.
Be it for contractual or political reasons, modern motorsport superstars just don’t have the kind of versatility afforded to Foyt, Gurney or Mario Andretti. Tony Stewart is the closest modern archetype, but the three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and 1996-97 Indy Racing League champion was never permitted to crossover in his prime the way Larson did this past season.
Larson began his 2021 in January with his second consecutive victory in the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals.
During his championship winning Cup Series campaign with Hendrick Motorsports, Larson claimed 10 victories, the most since Jimmie Johnson in 2007. Most impressive is that three of those wins came on road courses.
Not included in the 10 wins was his victory in the non-points All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Larson also won races with both the 750 and 550 horsepower rules packages on short tracks and intermediate speedways respectively. He claimed marquee NASCAR wins in the Bristol Night Race and Coca-Cola 600.
Throughout the summer, Larson made appearances at dirt tracks across the country winning in three different disciplines in 410 Sprint Cars, Super Late Models and Midgets. With his victory in the Prairie Dirt Classic at Fairbury American Legion Speedway on July 31, he became the only driver in World of Outlaws history to win in both the Sprint Car and Late Model divisions.
Many of the all-time greats have tried by the way.
Larson won the two biggest Sprint Car races of the year in the Knoxville Nationals and Kings Royal. He won the BC39 Midget Classic at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Dirt Track, too.
He makes it look incredibly easy on dirt but calling it that would be a severe disservice to the full-time racers in each discipline and still undercuts the reality that Larson is the only driver in modern history to seamlessly jump across four different disciplines and not skip a beat.
According to the Third Turn database, Larson has won 30 times in 89 starts in 2021 with an average finish of 6.82 across all four disciplines, and he still has Late Model, Sprint Car and Midget starts scheduled through December.
"What I'm most proud about this year and there is a lot I'm proud about," Larson said, "is that I raced so many different types of cars and was able to win a marquee event in each of them -- the Chili Bowl and the BC39 in a Midget, Kings Royal and Knoxville Nationals in a Sprint Car, the Prairie Dirt Classic in a Dirt Late Model, and a handful of big wins in the Cup Series.
"And to top it off, a Cup Series championship. I don't think that I'll ever be able to top this year, but I hope I can someday."
How about the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?
"I would love to entertain anything, no matter what type of vehicle it may be," Larson said. "I like being known as a versatile race car driver. Yeah, I mean, I'm open to anything.
"Logistically, it's just a tough thing to do. It takes a lot of dedication to go to that race and not just say that you raced in it. I would want to go there and know that I've got a shot to win, know that I've put in the effort and the work to win, and that’s just logistically tough. But I would for sure entertain it if Rick (Hendrick) would let me."
It was almost a matter of inevitability that Larson would someday attempt the Indianapolis 500 when he was affiliated with Chip Ganassi Racing. At the same time, Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet aren’t the hurdles they might have been in a previous era.
That’s especially true with Jeff Gordon in a leadership position with a willingness to facilitate his drivers’ desire to compete in multiple disciplines. Having Roger Penske overseeing both INDYCAR and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn’t hurt either.
"I feel like the Indy 500 question always comes up, and it usually comes up in May, but I feel like this year has been weird because all year everyone has wanted to talk to me about it," Larson said.
Well sure. That’s what happens when you start running out of races you haven’t won.
"I've told everybody around me, like I don't even want to talk about it until the season is over," Larson said. "We'll see. Like I said, it just logistically takes a lot of work and I want to be with a good team, too."
That’s important because that’s been the key across this past season at every level. In addition to crew chief Cliff Daniels, No. 5 car chief Jesse Saunders has been so very instrumental towards the success of Kyle Larson during the 2021 Cup Series season.
"I’m telling you, Jesse Saunders is a BA," Daniels said on Sunday during a press conference in which he touted the virtues of his right-hand man.
Larson’s most recent success in both Sprint Cars and Midgets comes down to team owner and crew chief Paul Silva, who was in attendance on Sunday at Phoenix Raceway. It’s a similar formula on the Dirt Late Model side with team owner and crew chief Kevin Rumley.
To his credit, Daniels has formed relationships with both Silva and Rumley to better communicate with Larson, especially as they learned each other’s nuances over the past calendar year.
"I'm really easy to work with and I feel like he's really easy to work with," Larson said. "I feel like we have great chemistry because he is so good at communicating and so good at painting a picture in a way that’s easy for me to process.
"It was nice that he came to a lot of my dirt races, and he'll pick up the phone and talk to Kevin Rumley about the Late Model. He'll talk to Paul Silva about the Sprint Car and stuff. It's neat when you have a crew chief that has your back and supports all the stuff that you race."
That’s an example of the buy-in Larson has enjoyed at Hendrick Motorsports this year. Larson will end up running close to 100 races this season while employed by an organization that traditionally hasn’t allowed their drivers to race outside of NASCAR.
Larson says he was nervous when he first asked Gordon and Hendrick if he could race dirt this season.
"We got to the end of our first meeting and (Rick) asked me what I wanted," Larson recalled. "I was really nervous because I know how Rick Hendrick feels about dirt racing and I hope I’m not shooting myself in the foot, but I told him I wanted to race some dirt races."
One of the greatest all-time seasons in motorsports history very well could have been nixed right there in that moment, and Hendrick didn’t shut it down.
"Jeff had mentioned to me a few times before that the culture and how they kind of handle their drivers' schedule was changing, but I didn't really believe it," Larson said. "So, I threw it out there, and I've gotten to race way more than I thought I would.
"When I was with Ganassi in the beginning, it was nothing. I couldn't really race anything else. Then it kind of morphed into 25 races in a year. I thought I would be something similar to that. But by the end of this year I'll race probably 100 total races, the most I've raced in a long time, especially a full-time Cup Series driver.
Hendrick and Gordon never told Larson ‘no,’ but they hinted it a couple of times approaching the playoffs.
"He kind of said I should really be focused on the playoffs, this and that," Larson said. "Even Rick said it a few times. I just kind of plated dumb, like ‘yeah, yeah, whatever,’ and then I’d go off and run a few dirt races."
How very Foyt of Larson.
"My kind of thought on it all was, why change what I was doing with my schedule when I feel like all that racing that I've done leading up to the playoffs helped me win a bunch of Cup races? See, I felt like it was important for me to race during the playoffs, and it paid off.
"I hope that means good things for my schedule next year."
Who is going to say no to a potential sequel to one of the all-time greatest seasons in motorsports history?