Big shoes to fill
More and more young drivers have been making the grade in NASCAR in recent years. The latest young talent to earn a top ride in the Sprint Cup series is 21-year-old Kyle Larson, who will replace Juan Pablo Montoya next year in Chip Ganassi’s Target Chevrolet. Larson is stepping into big shoes, but few drivers have shown so much raw talent so quickly in NASCAR.
Larson’s mother was born in Japan but raised in California and her husband Mike encouraged their son’s interest in karts. Kyle started racing regularly when he was seven and three years later told his father he was going to race in NASCAR one day. By the time he was 14, Kyle had won more than 130 kart races and 10 championships.
Larson graduated to midgets, sprint cars and modified stock cars and caught the attention of many people in 2011, when he won three races in one night at the famed Eldora Speedway dirt track in Ohio. Larson signed for Chip Ganassi last year, immediately won NASCAR’s K&N East championship and was placed with Turner Motorsports for this year’s Nationwide series.
In the Daytona season-opener, Larson was running in the lead pack only to become an innocent victim as drivers jostled for position on the run to the chequered flag. He was hit by another driver and crashed into the retaining fence. His car’s engine was torn off by the impact and debris flew into the grandstands, injuring more than 20 spectators.
Neither hurt nor fazed by the accident, Larson raced with the leaders in the next two Nationwide races at Phoenix and Las Vegas before making his mark with a superb performance at the demanding half-mile Bristol Speedway in March. In only his fourth Nationwide start, Larson caught and challenged race winner Kyle Busch in the closing laps, banging fenders in time-honoured NASCAR style as he tried to pass for the lead on the final lap. They crossed the finish line side by side with Busch declared the winner by just 0.023sec.
“I’m 27 and getting old,” Busch said with a grin after holding off Larson. “A young kid like that, he’s got a lot of talent. He’s obviously made a name for himself. He was running hard, that’s for sure. He brought a lot to the table today and gave the fans a show.”
Larson’s view? “On the last lap, I was pretty happy he went to the bottom to block or whatever. It gave me one more shot to try to get around him and he left me just enough room to squeeze the outside. I missed it by a couple of feet, but it was a lot of fun.”
Busch complimented his rival on his aggressive but clean driving. “Larson played it smart,” he said. “That was good from his end.
I think a lot of people have been looking at him to try to see whether he’s going to be a wrecker or a chequer. Today he didn’t get the chequer, but that will come.”
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon arrived in NASCAR’s top league in 1993 when he was only 21 and won his first championship at 24. He believes Larson has a big future in NASCAR. “I have heard of Kyle for years and, now that we’ve seen what he can do, I am blown away by this kid,” Gordon said. “He makes me look like nothing.”
Powerful words of praise for an exceptional young talent: it will be intriguing to watch Larson’s progress in the coming years.
“He’s an impressive young man,” Ganassi said. “He’s shown talent and maturity on and off the track. We helped him get started in NASCAR and then put him in one of our Cup cars. He did very well so we have high hopes.”