Jan 28, 2014, 6:50 PM EDT
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When you have incredible talent, some things are just foregone conclusions. But no matter what Kyle Larson accomplishes in his rookie Sprint Cup season with Chip Ganassi Racing, he’ll still likely go down in NASCAR history as having the shortest job interview and hiring process.
“If you know Chip, he’s really quick about what he says,” Larson said with a laugh, recalling the day Ganassi called and changed the young driver’s life.
“The phone call lasted probably 45 seconds. I was just driving down the road, I kind of maybe knew what the phone call was going to be about, so I pulled over and he said, ‘Hey, it’s Chip. Yo! Ready to drive the 42 next year?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘Okay, anything else?’ Click. That’s how it went.”
As the replacement for Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, Larson will definitely have a proverbial target on his back that is more than just representing his team’s primary sponsor.
There’s his age (21), his relatively short apprenticeship in the Nationwide Series (one season) and a reputation of being perhaps one of the most talented drivers to come up through the short track, sprint car and midget ranks in the last decade-plus.
But it’s hard to ignore the confidence Ganassi and Sabates have in Larson, not to mention the respect he’s already gained from several of his Sprint Cup peers and heroes.
“I am blown away by this kid,” Gordon said of Larson in a TV interview a little over a year ago. “He makes me look like nothing. He’s maybe a little more closer to Tony Stewart, who drove a lot more cars over the years than I have. I have Kyle’s number. I text him when he wins a race. I’m getting tired of texting him. The kid will win two different divisions in the same weekend. The kid is really spectacular. I think he’s probably the rawest, most talented race car driver I know of.”
In an interview with AutoWeek magazine last year, Tony Stewart said of Larson, “That kid is a lot better than (Jeff) Gordon or I was at his age,” Stewart said. “You’re going to be hearing about him for a long time. He’s a special talent.”
Larson was the talk of the morning session Tuesday in the second day of the four-day annual NASCAR Media Tour. He’s one of eight contenders for Rookie of the Year in the Sprint Cup Series, but it would not be a stretch to consider him the favorite already.
“The kid’s ready,” Ganassi said last August when he announced he had signed Larson to replace Montoya, who has moved back to the IndyCar Series this year after a seven-year run in NASCAR.
Ganassi was not able to attend Tuesday’s media session due to other commitments, but team co-owner Felix Sabates was there and readily admitted Larson will be a game-changer for both the race team but also for NASCAR.
To illustrate that, Sabates admitted he’s cut back on his travel schedule to races in recent years, but plans on ratcheting that up considerably to about 28 races on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule so that he can watch Larson race – and ultimately win.
“I want to be there when Kyle wins for the first time,” Sabates said. “He didn’t just come out of the closet yesterday. I’ve been following him for awhile. When he was 17 years old, I said he’s the real McCoy. Very seldom do you get someone that age, that mature, in a race car. When he hit the wall at Daytona and went airborne, I thought that was it, put a fork in him, he’s done. And then the next week, he was (back) out there, going sideways.”
For such a young man, Larson is a seasoned driver. He’s spent the last several years racing primarily sprint cars and midgets on short tracks around the country, winning dozens of races. He captured the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in 2012, winning two races and finishing in the top 10 12 times in 14 starts.
In just two Camping World Truck Series events last season, he won one and finished runner-up in the other. And then in his first full-time campaign on the Nationwide Series, Larson made 33 starts and, while he failed to win a race, finished runner-up four times, had 17 top-10 finishes and wound up an outstanding eighth in the final standings.
While Larson was involved in a massive pileup in the season-opening race at Daytona last year, where his car essentially disintegrated around him and with parts including a tire that flew into the crowd and injured two dozen fans, he amazingly was unhurt in the wreck. It was one of the most vicious crashes in NASCAR in recent memory.
“Having a background in sprint cars, wrecks like that happen – not all the time, but enough to where you’re not surprised when it happens,” Larson said. “It didn’t affect me mentally at all, I was just more worried about the fans and stuff. I was supposed to run a race that night, but I decided not to.
“It wasn’t because I was scared about racing, it was more out of respect for the fans. It probably wasn’t even in the top five of my worst wrecks. On video, it looks real bad, but as far as being injured or sore, it wasn’t bad at all. As a race car driver, you can’t be scared, and I tried to put things behind me pretty quick. So, I don’t think about it a whole lot.”
To his credit, Larson appears rather level-headed. While he smiles and says Jeff Gordon is his idol and that he at some point collected autographs of all his favorite drivers, he’s not letting the magnitude of his ascension to Sprint Cup to leave him awestruck. He knows he has a job and plans on going out and doing it.
“It’s exciting, but I don’t think about that stuff a whole lot,” he said. “When we’re strapped into the cars, we’re all just race car drivers. It’s just not that big of a deal to me. They’re just other race car drivers. I mean, when they come up to me, they’re probably not like, ‘Wow, that’s Kyle Larson.’ Like I said, they’re just other race car drivers I’m out there competing with.”
Ganassi and Sabates have both said they want to bring Larson along slowly, but his youthful expectations are more elevated than his bosses.
“Chip and Felix are both realistic with their goals as well as me, and theirs might be lower than mine,” Larson said. “But mine are just to be competitive each week and finish in the top 12 or 15 of the race, win Rookie of the Year and make the Chase.
“I don’t think anything could have worked out better for me. I couldn’t have caught any better break. I’m just really thankful and really to do the best job I can.”
Aug 30, 2015, 10:34 PM EDT
A look at how the championship hopes for the three drivers ended in the GoPro GP of Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 9:49 PM EDT
Dixon pulls off a shocker in Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 9:17 PM EDT
Juan Pablo Montoya blamed the double-points awarded in the season finale for missing out on the IndyCar championship.
Aug 30, 2015, 8:47 PM EDT
Rahal endures disastrous finale at Sonoma, falls from second to fourth after 18th place finish.
Aug 30, 2015, 7:18 PM EDT
Dixon wins race, title in Sonoma in dramatic fashion.
Aug 30, 2015, 6:15 PM EDT
Will Power and Juan Montoya must fight from the back of the field following an accident.
Aug 30, 2015, 5:01 PM EDT
Robin Miller remembers Justin Wilson in this touching tribute.
Aug 30, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Webber and the no. 17 Porsche crew claimed their first win at the 6 Hours of Nürburgring on Sunday.
Aug 30, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
Chevrolet wins its fourth straight INDYCAR Manufacturer’s Championship.
Aug 30, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
With heavy hearts, IndyCar moves ahead and will crown its champion this afternoon in Sonoma.
Aug 30, 2015, 2:45 PM EDT
Catch up on the Red Bull Global Rallycross season at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
Aug 30, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Maldonado keen to make up for his DNF in the Belgian Grand Prix at Monza.
Aug 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
What to watch for ahead of the 16th and final round of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma from Sonoma Raceway.
Aug 30, 2015, 1:42 PM EDT
Pole-sitter Will Power claimed the fastest time in the 30-minute session.
Aug 30, 2015, 1:01 PM EDT
Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard claim their first WEC victory since joining forces at the beginning of the 2014 season.
Aug 30, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
Grosjean sets his sights on repeating his third-place finish in Belgium last weekend.
Aug 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
“If somebody wants to go into Formula 1 and they think that they can do it from one to the next year, I think he shouldn’t try to do it.”
Aug 30, 2015, 10:13 AM EDT
While there’s no shortage of wineries in Napa Valley, few have racing tie-ins, and fewer still get a racing tie-in at Sonoma Raceway – here’s the story of the Trefethen Family Vineyards.
Aug 30, 2015, 10:04 AM EDT
Rossi wins a wet-weather thriller to regain the lead of the MotoGP world championship.
Aug 30, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
In case you missed it, a look back at the week’s worth of coverage in the lead-up to Sonoma.
- Double points reverse Montoya’s IndyCar championship hopes (VIDEO) 1
- Scott Dixon captures Sonoma race win and 2015 IndyCar championship (VIDEO) 8
- Sebastian Saavedra leads at halfway in IndyCar season finale (VIDEO) 0
- Robin Miller pays tribute to Justin Wilson (VIDEO) 1
- WATCH LIVE: IndyCar’s championship decided in Sonoma at 1 p.m. PT, 4 ET on NBCSN 1
- What to watch for: IndyCar at Sonoma (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Live Extra) 0
- Porsche’s no. 17 car surges to maiden WEC victory in 6 Hours of Nürburgring 2