The Elk Grove kid with the nonstop smile knows NASCAR Nation is watching his every move.
He’s the clean-cut wunderkind, the first of a new generation of drivers to reach Sprint Cup and potentially a new audience.
At 21, Kyle Larson realizes a lot is riding on his Daytona 500 debut today. He hopes his performance this weekend and throughout his first Sprint Cup season will erase the image most race fans have of his NASCAR career so far.
That would be The Crash, one of the most horrific in NASCAR memory, that took place one year ago today. In his Nationwide Series debut, Larson got caught in a multi-car accident. His car went airborne and into the catch fence at Daytona International Speedway, where numerous fans were injured.
“I can’t wait until people forget about it,” he said.
This time around, Larson hopes to make a distinctively more positive first impression. In his first Cup race on a super-speedway, he starts 16th in today’s “Great American Race.”
Larson already has made history. Of Japanese American and Native American heritage, he’s the first NASCAR “Drive for Diversity” graduate to make it to Sprint Cup. NASCAR experts proclaim Larson as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. Even Gordon and Stewart say it.
Stewart, a three-time Cup champion and Larson’s favorite driver, guaranteed this rookie would win races. Said four-time champion Gordon: “He makes me look like nothing (at his age).”
Car owner Chip Ganassi was so impressed with Larson, he booted seven-year Cup veteran Juan Pablo Montoya out of the No. 42 Chevrolet and promoted Larson after only one season in the Nationwide Series. Although he won no Nationwide races in 2013, Larson finished second four times and was named Rookie of the Year.
“Chip is a great car owner,” Larson said during a phone interview from the Florida track. “He used to race himself. He understands what you’re going through, what you need to do.”
Ganassi pegged Larson as a future star when the driver was still a student at Pleasant Grove High School. He signed Larson as a developmental driver and fast-tracked his progress up NASCAR’s ladder.
“We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson’s growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step,” Ganassi told reporters. “We’re sure there will be some growing pains, but we’re sure he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whenever his first year in the series is. This kid is a special kid.”
Larson’s Sprint Cup crew chief is Chris Heroy, who had the same role with Montoya in 2012 and 2013. Before that, Heroy spent eight seasons with Hendrick Motorsports as an engineer.
“Chris is a good guy,” Larson said. “He’s really smart and a great team leader. He’s pretty young, too (age 36); at least, younger than most crew chiefs. That’s nice. We get along really well. We’ve gotten to know each other during the offseason.
“We spend our whole lives together – that’s our team building,” he said of his No. 42 team. “We all know each other really well now.”
This season, Larson will drive in both Nationwide and Sprint Cup races. Double duty in NASCAR’s top two tiers shouldn’t overwhelm this rookie. Larson honed his skills by driving a variety of cars and disciplines. Jumping back and forth from lightweight open-wheel sprint cars to heavy-duty stock cars, he drove about 120 races in 2012 and, by his count, an even 100 in 2013. This season, he’s scheduled to drive 36 races in Sprint Cup and 33 in Nationwide.
In either series, fans will find Larson easy to spot. He’ll be in the No. 42 Chevrolet.
In Sprint Cup, Larson literally will have a bull’s-eye on his back; his sponsor is Target. In Nationwide, Larson has a new number and primary sponsor for his Turner Scott Motorsports Camaro: AXE Peace.
AXE, known for its humorous commercials featuring young men and hair gel, expects to use Larson in a national advertising campaign for its new fragrance, Peace.
Daytona Speedweeks also marks Nationwide’s kickoff. In Saturday’s Drive4COPD 300, Larson finished 10th.
Going into the weekend, Larson hoped for a smoother finish than his 2013 Daytona debut. While running sixth on the last lap of a Nationwide Series race just yards from the finish line, Larson got caught up in a spectacular 12-car crash. His No. 32 Chevrolet was launched into the catch fence, which separates the track from the grandstand. His Camaro actually broke through the safety fence and began to disintegrate. Debris from the car, including a tire, spread through the grandstand like shrapnel, injuring 32 fans – some 30 rows back from the track.
Larson didn’t let that crash slow him down. He walked away from the wreck unharmed – the front and back of his car completely sheered off – ready to race again.
“Obviously last year, we got caught up in the big wreck,” Larson said. “I’m really glad the fans were OK, and we’re all thankful for the safety improvements that NASCAR and its tracks continue to make.”
With history confined to his rearview mirror, Larson doesn’t think about the Daytona crash. “Honestly, (the only time he does is) when I get interviewed about it,” he said, “which seems like all the time.”
Now, he’s concentrating on giving the media something new – and hopefully positive – to discuss.
“We’d like to win at least one race,” Larson said. “Make the Chase; if we could, that would be wonderful.”
Those goals verge on historic. The No. 42 team hasn’t won since 2007 at Sonoma. A rookie hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race since Joey Logano in 2009. Denny Hamlin was the only rookie to qualify for the Cup’s championship Chase; that was in 2006.
“Be competitive,” Larson repeated of his team’s first goal. “And win Rookie of the Year.”
Larson credits his parents, Mike and Janet, for instilling his love of racing. He attended his first race at 1 week old.
“My parents will be here for the (Daytona) 500, and they plan to come to the first few races, too,” Larson said. “They’re really excited about all the opportunities I’ve been given. They know I’m really fortunate.”
The Larsons have been enjoying Daytona Speedweeks with their suddenly famous son.
“Racing gets in your blood, and once it’s in there, you can’t get it out,” Mike Larson said. “We didn’t go to baseball games or football games; racing was our life.”
With full support from his family, Kyle started competing in go-karts at age 7. While a Pleasant Grove sophomore, Larson attracted national attention as one of the country’s best sprint car drivers and a dirt-track sensation. He’s transferred that skill to asphalt and stock cars. But from here on out, his career road only gets tougher.
Larson tries to soak up as much NASCAR know-how as he can.
“I’m not really the type to go out and ask for advice,” he said. “When it comes to figuring things out, I have to find my own way.”
And, fortunately, he’s a fast learner. That’s important when driving 175 mph.
“My best asset is that I can adapt quickly to a race car and different tracks,” he said. “I can find that different line to go faster.
“That will be the key to this season,” he added. “I have to adapt. I have to learn quickly and understand what I need to do. And obviously, go fast.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.