Motorsport catches up with NASCAR Rookie-of-the-Year Kyle Larson.
TULSA – For Kyle Larson, 2014 was an incredible adventure.
The 22-year-old Elk Grove, Calif.-native won the Rookie-of-the-Year title in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. On the Xfinity tour, he posted his first career win at Auto Club Speedway and backed it up with a second victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May.
And when the season ended, Larson’s girlfriend Katelyn Sweet gave birth to the couple’s first son, Owen, on Dec. 22.
“It was a good, quick off-season,” Larson said. “Normally, I’m racing every chance I get in the off-season. This time I didn’t race that much. The off-season just flew by because there was a lot of stuff going on – anticipating and waiting for Owen to come.
“Once he came, I was off racing. It’s been an off-season I’ll never forget – and I won a couple of races, too. Hopefully, we can cap it off with a Golden Driller on Saturday.”
Setting the stage
When Larson first attended Tulsa Expo Raceway as fan, he remembers the claims, "if a driver ran well in the Chili Bowl, it would get you a shot down south in NASCAR”.
He watched his current NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi sign Brady Bacon and last year’s champion Bryan Clauson after successful showings in the event.
It’s a big race, but the more pressure you put on yourself, the more mistakes you make. This year is probably the most relax I’ve been.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger to win this race each year as the Swindell’s dominate it,” Larson said of the Chili Bowl Nationals. “Last year when Bryan Clauson won, that was huge. It would be great if I could win this race sometime in my lifetime. I’m only 22 so hopefully, I’ll have a long time to run this race.
“It’s a big race, but the more pressure you put on yourself, the more mistakes you make. This year is probably the most relax I’ve been. I usually get up tight for races like this, but I’m just treating it like another race and we’ve done alright so far.”
No rest for the wicked
Larson’s first win of the off-season came at Winter Heat Showdown Cocopah (Ariz.) Speedway earlier this month. He then amazed the crowd at the Chili Bowl Nationals on Wednesday night and will start fourth in the A Main on Saturday.
Larson’s enthusiasm has even captured the attention of Ganassi, who dropped in on him at the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Perris (Calif.) Auto Speedway.
“I’m sure Chip showed up just to make sure I didn’t get into any sort of trouble,” Larson said with a laugh. “But I think he likes dirt racing – and is liking it even more. When he told me he was coming to Turkey Night, I said, ‘you better wear something other than a white shirt. You’re not going to be able to keep that clean.’ But he showed up with a white shirt on.
“I heard he was going to come here, but the fumes can get pretty bad here so I think he heard about that and stayed home.”
Ready for Rolex
Last weekend Larson joined Ganassi teammate Jamie McMurray and CGR IndyCar racers Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan to shake down the No. 02 Target/Ford EcoBoost Riley at Daytona International Speedway in preparation for the 2015 Rolex 24 on January 24-25.
I got more seat time at the Roar than I did between the Roar and the race last year.
“I felt a lot better at the Roar than I did the entire time last year,” Larson said. “I got more seat time at the Roar than I did between the Roar and the race last year. I felt fast. I actually ran a quicker lap time than Jamie, but he was just really consistent where I was not as consistent. But I was way faster than I was last year.
“We should be alright. I think the Chevys will be the quickest but we’ll be ok.”
After a year of Sprint Cup experience, Larson feels confident that his results will improve dramatically this season. With the Chase field expanding to 16 contenders last season, Larson’s 17th-place finish in the point standings wasn’t indicative of how the No. 42 Target team evolved over the course of 2014. During the final 10 races of the season, Larson’s average finish was 9.9.
“I think we can win two races and make the Chase and go for the championship,” Larson said. “I think that would be good goals. Last year we would have finished sixth in points if we made the Chase. We can win the Chase, I think.”
A family affair
As Larson conducted interviews outside of the Keith Kunz’ trailer on the midway of the Tulsa Expo Raceway, Sweet emerged with the new baby. With both parents coming from racing families, it was natural for the brood to make their annual pilgrimage to the Chili Bowl, where Larson and Owen’s uncle, Brad Sweet, have enjoyed the event both as competitors and spectators.
While it’s just been a few weeks into fatherhood, Larson characterized the experience as “fun”.
“It’s been easy the first couple of weeks,” Larson said. “He’s been a little fussy this week, a little gassy I guess. Crying a lot. Up to now, he’s slept a bunch. He eats, sleeps, poops. I guess that’s a normal newborn from what everybody says. It’s been great. It’s been fun. I’ve got a ton of sleep. I haven’t been tired yet. I’m sure Katelyn might be. I’m sure I’m getting more sleep than she is.”