KYLE LARSON IS MORE THAN READY
By Ed Hinton | September 5, 2013
The silliest question I've heard this year is whether Kyle Larson is ready for Cup level.
Of course he is. If anything, he'll be better in Cup than he's been in Nationwide.
Two reasons for that:
One, he doesn't care what we think, and neither does Chip Ganassi, so Larson will continue to do what has made him so dazzling during his meteoric climb -- "Just kind of sat back and raced," as he puts it, until he senses it's time to go.
Two, Larson will get the kind of horsepower in Sprint Cup that he's used to in sprint cars, in which he has excelled since age 14.
Larson and Ganassi were peppered with the "Are you ready?" and "Is he ready?" rhetoric ad nauseam last weekend at Atlanta, when Ganassi made it official that Larson, age 21, will replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet in 2014.
"It doesn't bother me at all," Larson said. "I've never let the pressure get to me of running well or doing whatever. Just always kind of sat back and raced, tried to do the best I could. I think that's paid off for me in all the years I've been racing.
"I was always young. Starting off in sprint cars, I was the youngest to start off in California, at 14 years old."
To be clear, there is zero arrogance or cockiness in the tone and demeanor of Larson. There is just this cool self-certainty that is not at all offensive. If anything, in the big league, it wouldn't hurt Larson to add a little pizzazz to his persona.
There is, of course, abundant pizzazz in his driving. What caught your eye, and my eye, about Larson in the first place was precisely what caught Ganassi's eye, at Daytona in February.
To mainstream America, Larson made the newscasts as the guy whose car had been torn in half in a terrible crash at the finish line in the Nationwide race.
To NASCAR enthusiasts, it was the moments before the crash that shot Larson to stardom.
"I remember watching him in the race, hearing all the time how special he is, how special he is," Ganassi said. "He's running around in the Nationwide race 14th, or 12th, and I thought, 'What the hell is so special about this kid?'
"Sure enough, at the finish line, he was right there. Of course, he was here and there at the finish line at Daytona this year. Be that as it may, that to me was special.
"I've seen that five, six, eight times now. He gives you the impression he's dillydallying in the middle of the pack, not paying attention. Always at the end, he's where it seems to matter to be. That says something to me."
That says two names to me: David Pearson and Jeff Gordon, in their primes. To them, as to Larson, it was largely a matter of lurking until it was time to go.
Some reverse the question about Larson in the 42, wondering whether Ganassi's cars are good enough to showcase Larson. I asked Ganassi, who has doubled and redoubled his efforts to be competitive over the years, whether a fresh, pleasant, talented character around the shop might give the Ganassi operation an intangible shot of enthusiasm.
"That's a good question," Ganassi said. "I think we made a big step this past year. Our cars are a lot better. We've been running at the front a lot.
"Having the right drivers certainly doesn't hurt."
Indeed, in the Atlanta race, Montoya led 38 laps before finishing seventh in Larson's future ride, and teammate Jamie McMurray ran toward the front before finishing 11th.
I asked Ganassi whether he expects to win races with Larson next year.
"I think Kyle is the kind of driver, when he sees an opportunity in front of him, he takes it," Ganassi said. "If that means a win, hey, great."
But, "There's no pressure on him to win his first year out. I don't think there's any pressure like that."
So clearly, Ganassi is giving Larson plenty of room to learn. But Larson might not need much.
"The kid's done very well in every step he's made in his career so far," Ganassi said. "I see no reason why this should be any different."
Ganassi "did not offer any deals to any other drivers," he said. "We spoke to a number of current Cup drivers. At the end of the day, we felt that Kyle was the best option for our organization."
Ryan Newman almost certainly was one of the veterans Ganassi talked to. But Newman understands Ganassi's enthusiasm for Larson.
"I think Kyle has definitely proven across the board that he can drive absolutely anything, anywhere, anytime," said Newman, who himself rose through the sprint car ranks to NASCAR.
Larson followed up his Daytona spectacular by flashing brilliance at places like Bristol, where he gave Kyle Busch his toughest Nationwide challenge of the season in head-to-head racing before finishing second to Rowdy.
Then in Tony Stewart's Trucks race on dirt at Eldora in July, Larson kept winner Austin Dillon's hands full.
Larson is out of the same mold as Stewart, Dale Earnhardt and brilliant Indy car drivers of the past such as Al Unser Jr.
That ilk is so comfortable on dirt, running sideways much of the time, that getting sideways anywhere else, at any type of track, is handled smoothly with their highly developed reflexes.
It's called car control. Jimmie Johnson learned it in off-road racing.
Kyle Larson has it.
Now to my theory that he'll do even better in Cup than he has in Nationwide.
A Nationwide car packs "about 200 horsepower less than a Cup car," Larson pointed out. "With my sprint car background, they're 1,400-pound cars with 900-horsepower engines. I'm used to having way too much horsepower. I think it will translate well to Cup cars."
In testing a Cup car at Rockingham, he said, "I feel like it suited me a little better. We have to finesse the car a little bit more. It wasn't so much momentum-driven.
"I think that's where I struggle a little bit in the Nationwide stuff. I probably don't understand momentum quite as good as Kyle Busch or somebody. That's why I think the Cup stuff will be a little bit better for me.
"We'll just have to wait and see, I guess."
And you'll see.
"I think the biggest challenge he's going to have in front of him is not what happens outside of this room," Newman said in the Atlanta media center, "It's what happens inside of this room, the media part of it, the publicity part of it. The potential pressure, if you let it get to you, is more of a challenge, I think, than sitting in the seat behind the wheel and doing your job as a driver."
It's not going to get to Kyle Larson. He has been utterly unflappable thus far, and he will remain so.
Just you wait and see.
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