Growing pains: Kyle Larson admits Sprint Cup transition tough

Kyle Larson finished a career-best 10th last Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee.

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Kyle Larson’s first four races as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver have produced mixed results.

Not surprisingly, the 21-year-old California native has mixed feelings on what has been a challenging start to Year One in NASCAR’s top series.

"We’ve had really fast cars all year long," said Larson, an Asian-American and graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. "Just haven’t really caught the right breaks to get those top 10s. I feel at Phoenix and Vegas both we had top-10 cars. I got stuck a lap down there from mistakes.

"I think with the good finish at Bristol, it’s really going to hopefully turn things around, hopefully bring a lot of consistency."

Larson, tapped by team owner Chip Ganassi to replace veteran Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet this season, began his rookie campaign on a rough note in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. After hitting the wall in the opening laps and then running off track 20 laps later, Larson saw his night ultimately end in a crash triggered by contact with fellow rookie Austin Dillon with less than 40 laps remaining in the sport’s biggest race.

Larson’s bad luck continued the next weekend with a costly slow pit stop in the middle of a green-flag run at Phoenix, and the youngster was hit with a pit-road speeding penalty at Las Vegas in Week Three.

Kyle Larson crashes hard in the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.

But last Sunday at Bristol, Larson steered clear of trouble all around to finally record the kind of finish he believes his team has been capable of earning all season.

"Bristol was the first week of the season that was mistake-free and drama-free, I guess, we didn’t have anything happen to us," said Larson, who had finished 38th, 20th, and 19th, respectively in the season’s first three races. "Hopefully, we’ll have more and more of those.

"After the first three weeks I realized to even get a top 15, you have to be almost perfect or have a perfect race. It’s tough to come back from mistakes in this series. I learned that really quick."

Despite making his Sprint Cup debut last season with four starts late in the year, Larson concedes the transition from full-time Nationwide Series competition to full-time Sprint Cup status has been trying.

"There’s a lot of adjustments," he said. "Maybe the one that stands out is trying to get your feedback right to your crew chief from Happy Hour to the race. That’s something we’ve struggled with at Phoenix and Vegas both, were making the right adjustments on the car to start out the race good. We got behind a little bit in the beginning of both races, and it’s hard to come back from those.

"Communicating well with your crew chief, even though I ran those Cup races last year, these really are the first four races I’ve got to work with Chris Heroy. I did some testing with him last year, but it’s totally different than putting yourself in situations in races and stuff. The communication part has been a big adjustment."

Larson, however, is confident that he and his team are on the right path heading into Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway in his home state of California.

Photos: Looking back on a wild day and night of racing at Bristol

"I want to be fast each week," said Larson, a native of Elk Grove, Calif. "I feel like we have been fast each week. I felt, like, as far as the speed of the cars, where they’re at, I feel like our goals are close to being met, just our finishes haven’t met our expectations. But, yeah, I think as far as how the cars have been, our goals have been met there."

Of course, other than winning a race and making the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Larson’s chief goal for 2014 is beating Dillon — a former Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series champion — for top rookie honors.

"Obviously, Austin is the favorite, I would say, for winning that (rookie) title," Larson said. "I definitely pay attention to where he’s at on the speed charts or in the running motor, wherever, during the race. I don’t know if he does the same with me or not.

"€œI think it’s fun. I had a lot of fun racing at the end of the Bristol race on Sunday. He was quite a bit faster than I was. I was driving as hard as I could, as hard as I did the whole race, to try to stay in front of him. We ran clean and hard.

"I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of good races this year with Austin. I hope it’s a nice, tight battle to the end. It would mean a lot if I could win that Rookie of the Year award."