Some of the preseason speculation about Kyle Larson being promoted to the Sprint Cup Series after only one full season in a national NASCAR series car (Nationwide), was that Chip Ganassi wanted to make sure he didn’t lose Larson any time soon. You know, the way Bill Davis lost Jeff Gordon in 1992 to Rick Hendrick.
The implication was that Larson possessed such great potential, he was worth keeping, but perhaps not quite ready for a full Cup season. Eight races in, the comparisons to Gordon are a lot more flattering.
The day before that, Larson won the Nationwide Series race at Fontana. That’s one of five top-four finishes he’s had in seven Nationwide starts this season.
Praise is pouring in. Four of five NASCAR.com writers who were asked this week to name “One To Watch” in the Cup Series selected Larson.
“The first Sprint Cup rookie winner in five years?” Zack Albert asked. “The kid makes it look more reachable each week.”
Kenny Bruce said, “The kid’s scary fast and not easily intimidated.”
Holly Cain added, “(Larson) has lived up to the hype accompanying his arrival in NASCAR’s big time.”
Larson -- who will start on the pole Saturday -- remains humble amid the quick start, but expressed satisfaction that he’s running better than many expected.
“The Target car has been fast every week, so I came to the team at the right time,” he told the Daily Press this week. “It’s been a good run and it’s nice to prove the critics wrong.
“We’re off to a little better start than we thought we’d have.”
Any preseason doubts had to do with Larson’s lack of Cup experience, not his talent, which has been unquestioned for years. In 2011 he won 22 open-wheel races, sweeping three divisions — midget, sprint and Silver Crown — in the same night at famed Eldora Speedway.
With a few like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon aside, the history of NASCAR is littered with names of open-wheel drivers who couldn’t make it big in Cup or Nationwide cars. That includes the driver Larson replaced this year in Ganassi’s Cup car, Juan Pablo Montoya.
But Larson has been great since the moment he stepped into a full-bodied stock car a little more than two years ago, winning his first Late Model race, then winning twice en route to the 2012 K&N Pro Series East title.
Jefferson Hodges, competition director for the Rev Racing K&N team Larson drove for, said, “Kyle definitely had the most talent of any driver we’ve had here, and he still has the most talent.
“He didn’t need anything from us but the opportunity to show how well he could race in a stock car.”
Larson’s climb continued in 2013, when he won a Truck Series race and was second four times in the Nationwide Series in earning Rookie of the Year honors. He doesn’t think the transition from open-wheel to stock cars was a big deal.
“I think racing a lot of different types of open wheels in a lot of different situations helped me,” he said.
Still, after posting a best of 15th in four Cup races late in 2013, his start this season for what has been labeled a “tier-two team” was about what was expected. His average finish through the first four Cup races was 22nd, almost exactly what one magazine predicted.
Then came the Nationwide win at California, followed by the Cup runner-up finish to Kyle Busch in an exciting race a day later. He enters Richmond on the heels of a fifth at Texas and eighth at Darlington, and is 14th in the Cup standings — good enough to join the 16-driver Chase field if the season ended today.
“That was an awesome weekend, though we would’ve liked to sweep it,” Larson said of California. “The fifth at Texas was good, too, because of the competition.
“I’m really happy with Darlington, especially after the way we practiced, hitting the wall and going to the backup car. That track fits my attacking style. You have to run close to the wall.”
Larson’s emergence is part of the excitement in NASCAR about the large group of rising young stars. The other to hit it big in Cup this year is Austin Dillon, who sits 10th in the series standings and is Larson’s primary competition for Rookie of the Year honors.
“I think the future of NASCAR is in great hands,” Larson said. “A lot of young drivers are getting a shot in the Cup Series. Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Dylan Kwasniewski are running well in Nationwide, and Ryan Blaney and a handful of others are in Truck.
“I pay quite a bit of attention to what Austin Dillon does. It’s going to be a great battle.”
O'Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963.