After making headlines last year in the Nationwide race at Daytona for his massive crash, Larson has high hopes for his rookie season in the Sprint Cup.
Kyle Larson arrived in Daytona a year ago, a virtual unknown to all but open-wheel fans. By the time Speedweeks 2013 ended, his name and profile were headline makers. In the first-ever Battle of the Beach, he rammed his way to victory, earned his stock-car wings a few days later in an ARCA race and then on last lap of the Nationwide race, got caught up in a sensational crash that scared everyone.
Thereafter, Larson raced full-time on the Nationwide Series circuit with Turner Scott Motorsports, as a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing. Again, he gave strong accountings of his skills, including a last-lap shootout with Kyle Busch at Bristol.
According to Larson, his average finish was better on short tracks even though he struggled more than anticipated. He seemed to excel on the lengthier tracks, saying, “I guess the 1.5-mile tracks are somewhat similar to dirt track racing where the grooves widen out and you don’t have to stick to one line.”
In his spare time, Larson flew off to run winged and non-winged sprint car races all over the country. All told, he raced 102 times in 2013, winning 15 times, picking up 18 seconds and 7 thirds or said another way, an approximate .400 average for podium finishes. Also, he chalked up his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series triumph at Rockingham.
Another of his highlight performances came at the famed Knoxville Nationals, the same weekend he was commuting to Watkins Glen to race the Nationwide car.
When the Ganassi team announced that Juan Pablo Montoya would not be returning in 2014, Larson’s name quickly surfaced as a replacement. While many opined that the young Californian lacked the requisite stock-car experience, Ganassi didn’t hesitate in tapping him to drive the Sprint Cup car. He joins Jamie McMurray on the high-profile team.
The quiet-spoken Californian has been racing most of his life. Even though he’s only 21- years old, he has amassed tons of experience mostly on dirt tracks but he’s also readily adapted to paved surfaces of every size. His career path seems to parallel that of icons Parnelli Jones, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, the latter of whom has taken a strong liking to the young driver.
Ganassi fields front-running cars not only in Sprint Cup action but also the IndyCar Series and the TUDOR United Sports Car Series. His all-star driver line-up is expected to win and they do. Scott Dixon, an Indianapolis 500 winner for Ganassi, staged a dramatic run for the IndyCar Series championship in 2013 and Scott Pruett almost routinely garners sports-car wins and crowns. And recently retired Dario Franchitti won the Indianapolis 500 twice for Ganassi, plus he, too, captured additional wins and coveted championships.
To start each season, Ganassi fields two cars in the Rolex24 at Daytona and Larson was invited to make his sports car debut. He was teamed with star drivers Dixon, Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan and Marino Franchitti. The objective of including Larson was to have him get to know his teammates and learn from them.
While it took him a while to get accustomed to the prototype sports car, Larson acquitted himself well, driving two stints, including a night shift. “It was fun to race in the Rolex,” he said. “My first stint started off bad but in my second stint, things got better. I wasn’t as fast as my teammates but I was able to keep the car on the lead lap. I learned a lot about those cars. They are so different than anything I have driven before’ they are really tricky vehicles.”
Actually, Larson’s first race in 2014 came at the famed Chili Bowl where he tangled with grizzled veteran and former race winner Sammy Swindell. The two didn’t speak afterward, although memories linger on.
A year ago, Larson raced often but his Sprint Cup commitments will take priority in the new season and by agreement with the Ganassi team, he will make infrequent open-wheel forays. However, he will keep his fingers wet through co-ownership of a World of Outlaws team that will feature Shane Stewart behind the wheel. The team will make its debut in March.
Wrecks are commonplace in sprint-car action and the hard-charging Larson has had his share of them, including a violent series of flips two years ago at the lightning-fast Eldora Speedway. Asked to rank his grinding Daytona crash on his wreck list, he said it wouldn’t make the top-5 and he has no trepidation about returning to the scene of the action. Admittedly, he has viewed the wreck dozens of times as television networks use the footage often.
In pre-season testing at Daytona, Larson opened a few eyes with a few moves and he visited with affected drivers thereafter, to see whether he was driving over his head. Teammate McMurray checked it off to youthful exuberance.
Larson and seven others will run for the Sprint Cup rookie-of-the-year title and he’s got his eyes and heart set on winning it. “I think it is great for the sport to have all these young guys coming up,” Larson said. “It should attract younger fans with the competition so high. Winning the rookie award will mean a lot to me, and I hope I can pull it off.” Of course, the others have the same outlook, and it could turn into a dual between Larson and Austin Dillon.
The rising star isn’t expected to win in 2014 and he’s focused on top-15 finishes¸ but keeping an open mind of taking advantage of the new Chase rules and hoping to sneak into victory lane – a long-shot hope but one that could transpire.
“I want to be competitive and be in top 12 or 15 each race, win rookie of year and make the Chase,” said Larson about his goals for his freshman season in Sprint Cup. “If you can come close to your goals, you are happy about it.” And happiness it should be for the rising star.