On Saturday night, NASCAR’s greatest hope from its current youth movement will make his Sprint Cup debut.
While the 21-year-old Elk Grove, Calif.-native has only been on the stock car scene for the last two years, in his first season on the K&N East Tour he won two of 14 races and the title while posting a 6.4 average finish.
That was just the start for the racer that would just assume jump in a sprint — winged or not — and get down on the dirt. Watching him acclimate to heavier cars and trucks last year was compelling as he nearly pulled off upsets in the final two truck races last season. In his third career truck start, he led 43 laps at Phoenix before finishing second.
The following week at Homestead, Larson ran at the point for 48 laps before he was involved in a multi-truck wreck along with his teammate Nelson Piquet Jr. and champion contender Ty Dillon. Larson redeemed himself in his next truck outing by winning his first NASCAR race in the top three divisions in just his fourth start.
This year, in his first full year on the Nationwide Series tour, Larson has had his share of hits and misses — with the hits sidelining him thrice. On Friday night, Larson nearly got away with it.
He led 17 laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway, setting up for what could be a victorious pre-coming out party, until he slapped the wall and salvaged a 13th-place finish. Still, the rookie remains ninth in the NNS point standings on a tour that’s only allowed four non-Sprint Cup drivers victories in the first 30 races.
For Larson, this is just the beginning. Saturday night he will roll off 21st among his stock car heroes in the Bank of America 500. Perhaps what makes this moment so refreshing, however, is this kid’s ability to appreciate the moment. With his infectious smile and laid-back demeanor, if Larson’s feeling any pressure at all he’s simply not showing it.
“Everything is just a lot bigger,” Larson says of the transition from the small bullrings out West to NASCAR’S grand stage.” The fan following is bigger, the competition is a little bit better. I think it’s going to be a lot more fun. I have fun already. I just think the next step is going to be that much more fun.”
Despite missing a shift and blowing an engine in his first testing round last week, Larson and his soon-to-be-crew chief Chris Heroy just laugh about it now. Once Larson settled in, he posted lap times comparable to the top 10 drivers on the Sprint Cup circuit. During the first practice this weekend, Larson was 12th-fastest off the truck and simply spent the next two sessions dialing in his car.
“I was happy with how practice went and qualifying — I thought we would be a little bit better — but happy with 21st,” Larson said. “In the Cup series I can look at (teammates) Juan (Pablo Montoya) and Jamie’s (McMurray) data and that helps out quite a bit. To have the additional resources on the Cup side will help to prepare me better.”
Team owner Chip Ganassi’s selection of Heroy provides Larson with the perfect mentor to guide the rookie through the obstacles of Sprint Cup. The pair shares a similar approach to life — and racing. For now, however, it’s all about balance. The former Hendrick Motorsports engineer turned crew chief is still splitting time between his full-time job of overseeing the current No. 42 team and developing Larson’s program for the future.
“We’re doing everything we can while keeping up a front-running car for Juan,” said Heroy, who came on board last before the start of the season. “Get him ready and then go to the these tests — practice getting out of pit boxes, qualifying runs, all those rookie things you want to cover.”
Heroy understands the responsibility he has to cultivate Larson’s talent in stock cars and considers it “an incredible opportunity”. He was blessed with a similar opportunity when Kyle Busch came on the scene in 2005. Heroy, who was a freshman engineer himself at that time, was placed with a rookie crew chief in Alan Gustafson and the 19-year-old Busch.
“It was a lot of fun,” Heroy said. “I learned a lot of lessons through that that will help me out — and help him out. He’s a few years older than Kyle was at the time. He has a good level of maturity and obviously a lot of talent. I think he understands what he’s getting into — and take it slow, learn from every experience and kind of fall forward.
“They say one of the greatest things about Jimmie Johnson is that he’s made every mistake — but he’s only made it once. If we can follow that mold, we’ll be pretty good.”
Heroy is impressed with Larson’s “speed right off the bat” and his ability to adapt quickly.
“For a guy who has never really seen these style of cars — they drive a lot differently than a Nationwide car,” Heroy said. “He just gets it. If we keep everything else at a minimum and keep him focused on that, he’s going to have little problems.
“I asked if he was having fun, and he just gave me a big smile. His head’s in the right place.”
In addition to his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing teammates, Larson has been taken under the wing of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. He’s developed a relationship with Kasey Kahne and his development driver Brad Sweet, both who come from a similar racing background.
“I started paying attention before he got to the Nationwide Series or the Truck Series, or maybe even a year prior to that,” Kahne said. “He has been pretty impressive since he started. Always has since he’s been on four wheels.
“I think he is going to stay that way. He is talented. He enjoys racing. That is all he wants to do. He has a lot of drive and passion for it, so I think he’ll be a guy that is going to win NASCAR races for sure.”