NASCAR & Auto Racing

‘Championship favorite from day one’: Larson has new car, new baby, new expectations

After a breakout season, Elk Grove native Kyle Larson hopes his 2017 success carries over into this new year, starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500.
After a breakout season, Elk Grove native Kyle Larson hopes his 2017 success carries over into this new year, starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500. AP

Kyle Larson starts the NASCAR season in a new car with a new sponsor – and a new baby on the way.

“It’s definitely an exciting time for me,” the popular driver said. “A lot of changes, but it’s pretty cool.”

After a breakout season, the Elk Grove native hopes his 2017 success carries over into this new year, starting with Sunday’s Daytona 500.

“This is the first year I’ve been considered a championship favorite from day one,” Larson said this week. “Last year, we showed people that we could be a contender, where now this year people are pointing and looking at us that we could potentially be a championship favorite.

“That’s cool, and definitely is somewhere I’ve always wanted to be in my NASCAR career is to be a contender every week. We still have to get the season started, though. You never really know how you’re going to be until you get through Daytona and get through the first month, but it is neat to be considered one of the favorites already.”

In last year’s Daytona 500, Larson looked like a winner with a lap to go but ran out of gas. The other Kyle – Kyle Busch – drove on to victory.

“We were close last year to being the Daytona 500 winner and ran out of fuel and came short,” Larson said. “If we could put ourselves in position again and win the biggest race of our year, that would be amazing. And to leave here as a points leader would always be a good thing.”

Larson, 25, already has stamped himself as a major contender. In his fourth full season in the top NASCAR series, he earned four 2017 Monster Energy Cup victories and 15 top-five finishes out of 36 starts. A massive engine failure in Kansas ended last year’s title run, but he’s eager to pick up where he left off. He also had three wins and nine top fives out of 11 Xfinity Series starts.

“I learned a lot last season,” he said during a phone interview. “When you get knocked out of your opportunity of running (for a championship) so abruptly in the playoffs, I absolutely started thinking about next year. Honestly, I don’t even think about how my 2017 ended. I just want to get my 2018 started.”

Larson will no longer have one bull’s-eye on his back. Target, a longtime sponsor for Chip Ganassi Racing including Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet, opted out of motor sports this season to focus on soccer. So, Larson will switch from his familiar red Chevy to a bright blue Credit One Bank model.

That car will be different, too. This season, NASCAR Chevrolet teams switched from the Camaro SS (never that popular with consumers) to the sleek and sexier Camaro Z1L.

“The body is a lot different,” Larson said. “Just about every part of it looks different. But the guts – the engine, the chassis – those are the same. So, it shouldn’t be too crazy different to drive. Our team will learn how to tweak the aero package. But so far, this Camaro seems just as good, if not better, than the one we had last year.”

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Kyle Larson switched from his familiar red Chevy to a bright blue Credit One Bank model. The car is different, too. This season, NASCAR Chevrolet teams switched from the Camaro SS to the sleek and sexier Camaro Z1L. Phelan M. Ebenhack AP

In recent tests at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Larson was fastest in his new No. 42.

“That was really, really fun,” Larson said. “That makes me even more excited to see what we can do this season. I hope to test that right away.”

As always, Larson kept up a frenetic pace during the offseason. Between midget-car racing on two continents and testing stock cars back home, he got engaged Dec. 21 to his longtime girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet, sister of World of Outlaw driver Brad Sweet of Grass Valley.

“We still haven’t set a date,” Larson said. “We’re trying to figure out a time. It probably won’t be in California. With our schedule, it’s a lot of work to get out there then get back to the East Coast for racing. We live in North Carolina now and planning a wedding on another coast is just too much.”

The couple already has a 3-year-old son, Owen. “He’s talking a lot right now, carrying on full conversations,” said the proud dad. “He loves racing.”

They’re expecting their second child in May.

“This next one is going to be a surprise,” Larson said. “We don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

During the break, Larson also bought outright his World of Outlaws team. Someday, he may turn his talents to dirt racing full time.

“It’s always been a dream of mine,” he said. “I don’t know when that may be; I still have plenty of NASCAR racing to do. But I love it, too.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Daytona 500

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

When: Noon, Sunday

TV: 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Fox

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