NASCAR's most exciting young driver sits down with Athlon Sports to discuss his breakthrough season and more
Kyle Larson won the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year, wheeling his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet SS to a higher top-10 finish rate (47.2 percent) than what Richard Petty (42.9) and Jeff Gordon (36.7) did during their freshman seasons in the sport’s most grueling division. In advance of his highly anticipated sophomore campaign, the 22-year-old racer sat down with Athlon Sports for an exclusive interview, discussing his dirt racing background, his strengths and weaknesses and the critics who questioned his rapid rise to the Cup Series.
Who was your biggest racing influence?
Probably my dad. He was the one that got me into this. He built me my first go-kart. He didn’t race at all; he was just a huge fan growing up. He grew up a couple of doors down from (two-time Knoxville, Iowa, Raceway Sprint Car champion) Tim Green. He’d go to West Capital Raceway (Calif.) when he was a kid. He met my mom when they were teenagers and got her into liking racing too.
In your first full season of stock car racing, you won the championship in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, widely considered NASCAR’s top developmental division. We’ve heard stories that you constantly picked everyone’s brain about this type of car while you were there. It seems like you worked awfully hard for someone perceived to be an overnight success.
Well in my eyes, I don’t know that I did, but I guess if that’s what is being said, then I probably was. I worry about the way cars drive more than the parts and pieces that go onto them. That first year, I hardly even led laps. I just tried to take everything in. I watched other young guys like Corey LaJoie, Brett Moffitt, Chase Elliott and Darrell Wallace Jr. and learned from them, because they all grew up racing stock cars. I learned a lot just driving behind them. I was just trying to adapt quickly.
Across your three years in stock cars, you haven’t led much despite having strong average finish records. Do you prefer playing from behind?
Oh, trust me, I wish I could lead all the laps and have the most dominant car. I think a big reason for not leading is because I’m a better long-run driver than short-run driver. Even though I’m not exactly trying to, I feel I take care of my tires early in runs, and then I’m able to pick spots off toward the end of them. Last year I felt like every time I was close to the lead it was time for green-flag stops or a caution came out. I think short-run speed takes experience. In Nationwide, I felt I was better on short runs in my second year than I was in my first.
As a rookie, you ranked fourth in adjusted pass efficiency (53.13 percent) in the Cup Series in 2014 while ranking first specifically on the fast intermediates (54.22 percent). Becoming that efficient usually takes drivers years. What has allowed you to become such a nuanced passer?
Understanding how the air works when you’re behind people, and trying to find clean air helps to pass, especially on the intermediates. I think that’s why it comes so easy there. Intermediates relate to 3/8- or half-mile dirt tracks. Winged sprint cars really helped me understand how dirty air works. You have that big wing on top that’s sticking up and punching a huge pocket into the air, and you have to find ways to keep good air on your wing so your car handles right. I’m glad I grew up racing the kind of cars I did, because it taught me to not waste time when you’re behind someone on the track.
There was a lot of interest in your driving services prior to 2011. What made Ganassi the most appealing option?
To me, I thought Chip (Ganassi) was the most excited about me coming into the organization. He didn’t have any development drivers at the time, and the other teams did. He had a plan for me. And even though their cars weren’t the greatest when I signed, you could see that they were getting better. I signed in 2011 and thought that if I got to Cup in 2015, I’d be in a great spot. I got to Cup earlier than I expected it, but now I feel like it was the perfect time.
Your crew chief, Chris Heroy, went from Juan Pablo Montoya, a driver with a seemingly rigid handling tolerance, to you, someone who can conceivably thrive regardless of a car’s setup. How do you feel the dynamic between you and Chris has improved?
It improved a lot. Even though we tested together in 2013, I came from a way different background than he did, and especially what Juan did. It took about six races … the terms I used to describe how the car was handling were different. At Phoenix (in March), I was really loose to start the race and he asked me to give him a 1 to 10 number on how loose I was. I told him I don’t like numbers, because my 7 might be different than his 7. I just want to get the car close (to my liking), and I’ll drive it. I feel like there are veteran drivers that worry too much about how well their car is handling and it gets in their head. I just feel like once you start the race, that’s what you’ve got. In stock cars, lines change during the race. I choose to focus more on moving around to find extra grip and a line that works for my car.
The short tracks were the only track type where you did not average a finish better than where you ran. Why do you feel a track like Martinsville presented such a challenge?
Martinsville is my worst racetrack, by far. I think it’s because in Sprint Cars, you might go race at a quarter-mile racetrack, but you’re still going to carry a ton of momentum into the corner. Martinsville is totally backwards from what I grew up learning. There, I almost come to a stop and try to get the car pointed before driving to the other end of the track. At mile-and-a-halfs, you try to carry a lot of momentum into the corner. That’s why I’m better there. Tracks like Martinsville and Richmond don’t really suit me that well because I have to use a lot of braking and slow down a lot. I’m sure I’ll get better over the years, but I’m definitely struggling at those places right now.
If you could have one race from 2014 to do over, which one would it be and what would you do differently?
The first Michigan race. We were really strong, and at the end we played fuel strategy right to where when we had to make a stop, we wouldn’t have to put a full fuel load in, making our pit stop quicker. Well, the stop before that, I sped on pit road and got penalized — I had to go to the back (of the field). Had I not sped, I would’ve had that track position, and we would’ve had a quicker stop than Jimmie Johnson’s team did. I don’t know if I would have won, but it would have been a really good chance to get a win.
There were many in the industry who felt you weren’t ready for the Cup Series when your promotion was announced in the fall of 2013. Do you feel now that you were ready back then?
Definitely. I’ve been “too young” everywhere I’ve raced. I knew there would be doubters. I was confident in myself that I could come out here and compete. I did it in go-karts when I was eight and did it in sprint cars when I was 14 and racing against 50-year-olds. I felt like I showed them that I belonged. I’m glad I did. I did an interview early last year with Darrell Waltrip, and he asked whether I thought I’d picked a bad year to come out as a rookie because I was going up against Austin Dillon. I laughed to myself because I was pretty confident that I would beat him.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.