Kyle Larson, a boyish-looking 21-year-old who races far beyond his years, might be NASCAR’s Next Big Thing. Then again, he might run into the Next Big Wall.
Being cast as stock car racing’s newest wunderkind and can’t-miss star in the making is to stand on shaky ground. It took Joey Logano, considered a sure-fire star when he broke into the big leagues five years ago, all of those five years to reach a level of consistent strength. Others whose talent was considered beyond question now are beyond oblivion, languishing in backwater series or watching races from home.
Larson will open the 2014 Sprint Cup season in the No. 42 car owned by Chip Ganassi and formerly driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, whose seven years in NASCAR (all with Ganassi) didn’t set the world on fire (well, except for that ugly track-dryer incident at Daytona…).
Larson drives into the Cup series having raced stock cars only since 2012. He grew up in sprint cars, turning heads in USAC sprint, midget and Silver Crown racing and reminding long-time observers of the success in those series of current NASCAR kingpins Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.
Larson’s rapid success in open-wheel cars attracted the attention of both Ganassi and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (Larson has Japanese-American and Native American heritage), and the Californian joined Chip Ganassi Racing as a developmental driver while continuing to run short tracks across the country.
Larson was tossed into the Nationwide Series full-time in 2013 with very little experience in full-bodied stock cars. He failed to win, but he finished second four times and was eighth in points at the end of the season. In late August, Ganassi named Larson as Montoya’s 2014 replacement.
Some say it’s too soon; Ganassi and Larson disagree.
“We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson’s growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step,” Ganassi says. “We’re sure there will be some growing pains, but we’re sure he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whatever his first year in the series is.
“This kid is a special kid.”
Larson doesn’t back away from high expectations. “I’d like to prove the people that don’t think I’m ready for it wrong,” he says. “The guys that think I am ready — let them pump their chest out a little bit.”
Logano started Cup at 18, a kid who looked like he had driven in fresh from the junior prom. He knows about the potholes.
“He (Larson) has a little more experience than I did when I started, but when you jump in these Cup cars it’s such a different world out there,” Logano says. “There will be tracks that suit his driving style perfectly and tracks that will be just the opposite. What I came to a quick realization of is that I’m against the best race car drivers in the world, so it’s tough, and all these teams are tough.
“Obviously, learning how to drive these cars is difficult, but I have 100 percent confidence he’ll figure it out. Just like anybody coming into this series, you have to give them a couple of years to figure out. It’s tough. It’s tricky.”
ESPN analyst and former driver Ricky Craven says Larson’s potential will be tested at a “number of crossroads where he has adversity and has to choose whether to go left, right or straight. There are going to be plenty of those intersections. Handling that pressure is a really important piece of the pie.”
The testing began at Daytona in early January, where last year Larson was a focal point of a wild final-lap wreck in the Nationwide Series opener. His car sailed into the outside fence (right), shredded its front and rear clips and dropped its engine into the grandstand in a violent flight.
Larson wasn’t hurt, but he got a hint of how rough the road to the top can be.
by Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.