2021 Nov22 Kyle Larson Main Image
Zack Albert | NASCAR Digital Media

Hometown hero: Kyle Larson returns to Elk Grove for a champion’s welcome

ELK GROVE, Calif. — A hometown welcome greeted NASCAR champion Kyle Larson on Monday at Elk Grove, and townsfolk showed up by the hundreds hoping to catch a moment with the local driving ace. Even the passing trains that rolled past the Old Town Plaza in the center of the historic district marked the occasion, sounding their horns as they rumbled by.

The cheers continued Monday, just more than two weeks after Larson claimed his first Cup Series crown with a clinching victory in the Phoenix Raceway season finale. The triumph resonated with the community in the Sacramento suburb as fans and residents lined Elk Grove Boulevard to toast his accomplishments.

“All the stuff that I’ve gotten to do has just really allowed it to sink in,” Larson said. “I think every day that comes by, you kind of enjoy it even more, so this is really neat. You get to see other people when their hometowns get to celebrate, and you never really know if you’ll get the opportunity someday. Thankful that I won the Cup championship and everybody was able to come together to put this event on.”

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The event was complete with remarks from plenty of city dignitaries, who read from a list of proclamations with no shortage of the terms “whereas” and “hereby.” Among those was the declaration of Nov. 22 as Kyle Larson Day in Elk Grove, an unexpected perk for the 29-year-old driver, who was also the town’s first recipient of the key to the city in 2014.

But Larson was also recognized not just for his driving expertise, but for his continuing contributions to the place he calls home.

“To have him come home and give back to our community, to the Elk Grove food bank, just shows his commitment to our city,” Elk Grove mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen said. “But seeing the tremendous amount of support that’s here today and seeing young fans and older fans all alike supporting one of their own, it gives them hope that any dream is possible. Dream big, and if Kyle Larson can do it, so can they.”

Jeff Long and his wife, Teresa, were among those visiting. The couple made a 2 1/2-hour trip north from home in Fresno up to Elk Grove, where Jeff had lived for 20 years. Even more remarkable, he was still recovering from the back surgery he’d undergone just 11 days earlier, an ailment that left his presence at the Old Town ceremony in doubt.

2021 Nov22 Larson Fan Inset Image
Zack Albert | NASCAR Digital Media

Long said his first NASCAR race was the inaugural Cup Series event at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997. Jeff Burton won the race, but Jeff Gordon won their hearts after Long had read in the newspaper that Gordon claimed Vallejo, California, as his hometown. After Gordon retired from full-time driving, Long said his fanhood transferred to another Golden State native in Larson.

His most recent race was the Phoenix finale, where Long fought through his back pain to enjoy a clear vantage point for the season-ending drama and the No. 5 team’s race-winning pit stop.

“It’s just mind-boggling that we get to experience this,” said Long, who carried a sign reading ‘We were there / PHX 2021.’ “We watched the celebration last year in Dawsonville for Chase Elliott, and we thought that was the coolest idea ever. So that we get to do this now? I had to be here.”

Officials from Sonoma Raceway — the nearest Cup Series track — also turned out, bringing a show car as part of the Old Town Plaza display. Jill Gregory, the road course’s executive vice president and general manager, originally hails from Modesto — about an hour south of Elk Grove — and was there to soak in the atmosphere.

“We’re just thrilled with the turnout — it’s Monday, 2 o’clock on the week of Thanksgiving, but to see all the race fans out here, I think it just shows you how many race fans there are in Northern California,” Gregory said. “Everyone had a Kyle Larson shirt on, it seemed like, whether it’s for dirt racing or Cup. It was just great to hear and see all the race fans here.”

RELATED: Scenes from the celebration

Larson had just completed a three-night stint of midget-car racing at Placerville Speedway, and his grassroots racing schedule will continue in his home state with next weekend’s Turkey Night Grand Prix down south at Ventura Raceway.

But Monday meant taking a brief break from racing to reconnect with family and old friends in a familiar place.

“Elk Grove will always be home,” Larson said. “I haven’t lived here for 10 years, but when they announce my name at every race I’ve ever run, Elk Grove, California, is how they introduce me. So yeah, Elk Grove is home. I love coming back here, visiting my parents, eating at a lot of my favorite restaurants and stuff. So yeah, just glad to be here today.”