Rusty Jarrett / CIA Stock Photography

Kyle Larson of Elk Grove will race the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide season as a driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. He makes his season debut Saturday at Daytona International Speedway.

Elk Grove's Kyle Larson to make NASCAR debut at Daytona

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013 - 5:00 pm | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 - 4:21 pm

Look out, NASCAR Nation. Here comes Kyle Larson.

The Elk Grove racing prodigy makes his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut Saturday at the sport's most hallowed track, Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Cruising around the 2 1/2-mile oval during his first practice laps last week, the 20-year-old driver couldn't help but think about All American Speedway, Roseville's little bullring where he polished his skills.

"You can fit a lot of Rosevilles in the middle of Daytona," he said by phone from the Florida track.

Pegged by NASCAR as a barrier-breaker for its Drive for Diversity program, Larson becomes the first Japanese American driver to reach this level of motorsports. His mother, Janet, is of Japanese heritage; dad Mike is part American Indian. Both are in Daytona for Larson's Speed Weeks debut.

"It's going to be really tough," Larson said. "There are a lot of really good drivers in Nationwide. Maybe if I can win a race or two, be in the top six or seven; if I can accomplish that, I'll be pretty satisfied."

No "ifs" – Larson will be the next NASCAR star, three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart told reporters.

"I guarantee it," Stewart said. "If not, you can take everything I own because I'm that confident. It's not a matter of if – it's when."

Already a dirt-track champion, Larson is a developmental driver for the powerful Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team. In Nationwide, he drives the No. 32 Clorox Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports; Danica Patrick is his Nationwide teammate.

At Daytona, Larson already has made a huge impression. Saturday, he finished second in his first race at the speedway, the ARCA season opener. Sunday, he won a USAC midget race at nearby New Smyrna Speedway.

Monday, Larson won again with a last lap move that lit up the Twitterverse. Coming out of the final turn, he spun out leader C.E. Falk III to win the inaugural "Battle at the Beach," a NASCAR Late-Model race at Daytona's dirt track.

"Definitely not my proudest moment in racing," Larson posted after the victory on his Twitter page. "I went for the win. Felt any other short-track driver would do the same. I honestly feel bad, but I'm here to win. I'm a racer and won't settle for anything less."

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who knows what it's like to be a young phenom, said, "He makes me look like nothing (at his age)."

A Vallejo native, Gordon started his own driving career as a local pre-schooler, racing quarter-midgets in Rio Linda. Gordon, who has become Larson's friend and mentor, texts the young driver after every win.

The son of racing fans, Larson attended his first race when he was 1 week old. He started competing in go-karts at age 7. While still a sophomore at Pleasant Grove High School, Larson attracted national attention as one of the country's best sprint car drivers and a dirt-track sensation.

Larson recently moved to NASCAR's hub in Charlotte, N.C.; he lives in Huntersville, a suburb that's home to Joe Gibbs Racing and several drivers.

"I've enjoyed every minute of it," he said.

Charlotte feels a lot like Sacramento, Larson said, but with more race cars. "Lots of trees; I like it a lot. But there's no In-N-Out (burgers). That's what I really miss."

Larson doesn't have much spare time. "When I do, I usually spend it driving my go-kart," he said.

His favorite NASCAR driver? "All-around, it's got to be Tony Stewart," he said. "We both try to race as much as we can – whatever we can."

Like Stewart, Larson loves to drive anything. He raced 123 times in 2012 and plans another busy year, starting with 33 Nationwide races.

"Hopefully, I can drive 40 to 50 sprint car races, too," he said. "That's why I got into NASCAR, so I could (afford to) own my own sprint car team some day.

"Also, NASCAR has the best drivers in the world in the Sprint Cup series and I want to race against them."


• Track: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

• TV: 10 a.m. Saturday, ESPN

• Distance: 300 miles, 120 laps

• 2012 winner: James Buescher

• Sprint Cup: Daytona 500, 10 a.m. Sunday, Channel 40

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