NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - DECEMBER 02:  2021NASCAR Cup Series championship driver, Kyle Larson and NASCAR Hall of Famer and team owner Rick Hendrick(L) pose for photos with the Bill France NASCAR Cup Series Championship trophy during the  NASCAR Champion's Banquet at the Music City Center on December 02, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Rick Hendrick (left) and Kyle Larson (right). (NASCAR Photo)

WALTZ: Special Thanks To Rick Hendrick

HARRISBURG, N.C. — The general manager of every track that sells tickets to a NASCAR Cup Series race needs to send a personal thank you note to team owner Rick Hendrick.

Hendrick’s decision to allow Kyle Larson, an open-wheel standout from Elk Grove, Calif., to continue pursuing his passion for short-track racing while driving Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro did more to energize race fans across the country than any scenario that has played out in the last decade.

With an amazing ability to win in every type of car in which he competes, Larson — with an occasional assist from a few of his NASCAR racing friends —– singlehandedly rebuilt a bond that has short-track fans once again paying attention to what happens on Sunday.

That’s a dynamic that had faded away in recent years as many of NASCAR’s top drivers had clauses in their contracts that either greatly limited or curtailed their participation in non-Cup Series events.

We were repeatedly told the risk far exceeded the reward. We even saw the impact when Tony Stewart broke his leg in a 2013 sprint car crash.

But there was a problem with the math.

The risk vs. reward equation was out of whack because the decision-makers failed to take into account the vast number of people who spend their hard-earned money to attend short-track races on a regular basis.

Thanks to Rick Hendrick’s vision and Kyle Larson’s ability, those fans are once again paying attention to NASCAR — and that’s good for the entire sport.

– A tip of the hat to Hall of Fame sprint car racer Danny Smith for capturing the USCS Outlaw Thunder Tour national championship.

At 64 years young, Smith accumulated 40 top-10 finishes, including one victory, in 50 series races between February and November. The native of Danville, Ind., who now resides in Chillicothe, Ohio, has won at least one sprint car main event in 45 of the last 46 years.

We still remember cheering from the stands in 1975 when Smith skipped his high school graduation to compete in the Little 500 sprint car race at Indiana’s Anderson Speedway. He finished third that night and was named rookie of the year.

– While interviewing Hurley Haywood for the feature story that appears elsewhere in this issue, we asked the legendary sports car racer to pick a favorite among the many cars he drove through the years.

“That’s a difficult question,” Haywood said after a long pause to gather his thoughts. “Every type of car I’ve driven, and for the most part it’s all been Porsches — starting with the 911 RSR, moving to the 935, then the transition into the prototypes — every car was a special car and I was successful in all of them.

“But if you had to tack it down to one car that I really loved driving, it was the 936 — the open-cockpit car, the car I won Le Mans with for the first time in 1977. That was really a great combination of power and road holding. It was very responsive in the handling and just a lot of fun to drive.”

After learning Haywood still serves as an ambassador for Porsche, we were curious as to know which of the German sports cars currently occupies the daily-driver position in his garage.

“My personal car is a Taycan, the new electric Porsche, which I’m really happy with. It’s a very impressive car and it’s very fun to drive,” Haywood explained. “I also have a 356 that was built for me by Rod Emory, the Outlaw guy, which is just beautiful.

“Then, I have all of the cars we have in the Brumos Collection that I can drive. We have the 918, we have an early 1973 911 S, which is really cool. Those cars are owned by the collection, but I can drive them all, so that’s really nice.”

– This column marks the start of our 40th season of writing about auto racing. A lot has certainly changed since the days of telecopiers and paste-up knives.