NASCAR & Auto Racing

Elk Grove’s Larson leads rookies to first road course test at Sonoma

Ah, youth. They rarely slow down. Full of confidence, they charge hard into challenges, ready – they think – for whatever comes around each bend. They only envision success, not hitting a tire wall.

But today’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 can be a painful lesson in patience and persistence. It’s a potential crash test few rookies pass.

In his first season at NASCAR’s top level, Kyle Larson is in Sonoma this weekend, ready to impress. Arguably, this 10-turn road course constitutes his home track on NASCAR’s senior circuit; it’s the closest Sprint Cup venue to his hometown of Elk Grove.

Never mind that Larson had never driven a lap at Sonoma Raceway until Friday’s practice sessions. He’s a fast learner; that’s how he got here.

“I’ve only been here two times (to watch races),” Larson said last week. “My background was in dirt racing. We went to Placerville, Chico, Calistoga; not NASCAR at Sonoma.”

No problem. After acing Saturday’s qualifying, Larson will start third today behind pole sitter Jamie McMurray and A.J. Allmendinger. McMurray, Larson’s Ganassi Racing teammate, is making his 12th start in this race and his third from the lead.

Larson knows people are watching, and not just in Sacramento. Of Japanese and Native American descent, he’s the first product of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to get a full-time Sprint Cup ride. Competing against veterans old enough to be his father, he is tied for seventh in the overall standings.

“Each step has helped me get to where I am today,” Larson said. “Every step has been big for me.”

On top of the Cup standings are a trio of familiar names: five-time Sonoma winner Jeff Gordon, six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and perennial fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. Their ages: 42, 38, 39, respectively.

The generation gap makes no difference to Larson, who turns 22 next month. “We all get along fine for the most part,” he said. “We’re all kids at heart.”

In a sport where payback is a constant possibility, Larson has learned to respect his elders.

“If you make them mad, they’re going to make your life miserable,” said the rookie. “But you can’t back down. You’ve still got to race them hard.”

Has he made anyone mad on the track? “Oh, yeah; Tony Stewart,” Larson said. “Last week and the week before that and the week before that.”

While many drivers have been on that same list, Larson notes Stewart also has offered him good advice. They share a love of dirt racing, where both started their racing careers.

Larson jokes that he wears a bulls-eye on his back; Target is his primary sponsor. “Target has been with Chip (Ganassi Racing) for 25 years,” noted Larson. “That’s longer than I’ve been alive.”

As a teen, the Pleasant Grove High School alumnus gained national attention, winning 22 races in 2011 in World of Outlaws and other sprint car series.

Before 2012, he had never raced a car with fenders. Chip Ganassi Racing signed him to a NASCAR contract and accelerated his progression to American auto racing’s major league. It’s an extremely small pool that makes it to this level; only 43 drivers qualify for each race. Every Major League Baseball team has almost that many men on its roster.

The youngest driver in Sprint Cup, Larson is part of a stellar group that constitutes the new wave of NASCAR. A win today puts any of them instantly into Sprint Cup’s championship Chase.

Larson tops NASCAR’s Class of 2014, but Austin Dillon and Justin Allgaier are past Nationwide Series standouts and worthy Rookie of the Year candidates, too.

At Sonoma, history is not on the side of these rookies. Only one rookie has won this Sprint Cup event. That was Juan Pablo Montoya in 2007. Montoya was a novice in NASCAR only; before his Sonoma debut, he won the Indianapolis 500.

Coincidentally, Larson replaced Montoya this season in Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Montoya, 38, went back to IndyCar.

“Juan did a good job, but he had a lot of bad luck,” Larson said. “The only thing I think I’m really doing differently is I’m finishing races. Juan always was fast, maybe faster than me.

“But the first thing you’ve got to do is stay on the track the whole race. If I can do that, I can finish top 15 pretty easily.”

To prepare for today’s race, Larson watched Montoya’s performance at Sonoma in 2013. Starting 13th, Montoya finished 34th behind winner Martin Truex Jr.

“Juan had an in-car camera and someone uploaded the video to YouTube,” Larson said. “I watched the whole thing. I took notes.”

To get some experience before today’s race, Larson competed in – and won – Saturday’s K&N Pro Series West event at Sonoma. Allgaier and Dillon also competed, finishing 14th and 22nd, respectively. They know they’re in a three-way battle for Rookie of the Year.

“Rookie of the Year, that’s the goal,” Larson said. “I’m constantly aware of it. Our goal every week: Finish top 10 and be the highest (finishing) rookie every race.”

In the No. 51 Chevrolet and 29th in the point standings, Allgaier also is making his Sonoma debut. He starts 35th today. In 2009, he was the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year. He has three Nationwide career wins but is still seeking his first Sprint Cup victory.

For his rookie season, the 28-year-old has a big plus in crew chief Steve Addington, who served Tony Stewart in that same position the past two seasons. Addington also was crew chief for two winners at Sonoma: Kyle Busch in 2008 and Kurt Busch in 2011.

“I’ve never raced at Sonoma, so I will have a pretty steep learning curve,” Allgaier said. “My crew chief has a couple of wins there, so I will be relying on him for guidance.”

Currently 17th in the standings, Dillon – who starts 26th today – drives the fabled No. 3 Chevrolet. That number belonged to the late Dale Earnhardt. Team owner Richard Childress reactivated the No. 3 for Dillon, his grandson.

Dillon, 24, has not disappointed. In his NASCAR education, he won the 2011 truck series title. In 2013, he became champion of the Nationwide series. In February, he earned the pole at the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest race.

But at Sonoma, he’s just another rookie, hoping to stay on track. Before his debut, Dillon was coached by road course specialist Max Papis. Dillon had never seen the track until this week.

“There will be a learning curve,” Dillon said. “We’ll shut that timing and scoring system off and just try and get me better as a driver.”

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