Driver Kyle Larson is pushing the limits in NASCAR, on and off the track

dscott@charlotteobserver.comMay 19, 2014 

  • Top rookies

    Kyle Larson is 13th and Austin Dillon 14th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings. Here are some of the top rookie finishes in NASCAR’s top division:

    Driver Place Year Driver Place Year
    James Hylton2nd1966  Jimmie Johnson5th2002
    Denny Hamlin3rd2006Ryan Newman6th2002
    Tony Stewart4th1999Dale Earnhardt 7th1979
    Shorty Rollins4th1958Kevin Harvick9th2001

CONCORD

Kyle Larson’s NASCAR Sprint Cup resume is pretty impressive for a 21-year-old rookie whose baby-faced countenance makes it appear as if he should still be racing go karts back in his home town of Elk Grove, Calif.:

• 13th in the Cup standings.

• Two top-five finishes.

• One pole.

There’s one thing missing – for now. And he’s going to be patient about it – for now.

“We’re pretty close to winning,” Larson said. “It matters some, but it’s still so early for me. Everything’s got to go right to win a race. We’ve got to get our cars a little better. Then we’ve got to put a whole race together. It’s going to happen.”

Based on a young life already full of racing success, the day in which everything comes together for Larson will likely come sooner rather than later, perhaps at Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Aided in part by a stint in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (he is Japanese-American), Larson is already outperforming most of the circuit’s veteran drivers, making what appears to be a seamless jump into a full-time ride in NASCAR’s top division.

Larson might be the best of this season’s eight-driver rookie class, which also includes Austin Dillon, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Cole Whitt, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman and Ryan Truex.

Larson has finished 10 of 11 races this season and was second at Fontana. That came one day after he won the Nationwide Series race at the same track. He celebrated by performing a “burnout” in the infield grass while holding his steering wheel out the window.

“He’s been everything we hoped for and more,” said Larson’s team co-owner, Chip Ganassi of Ganassi Racing With Felix Sabates. “He’s got a maturity beyond his years and a lot of race craft. He’s still picking up knowledge and has a little bit to learn. But he’s coming along very, very fast.”

The victory Larson is (somewhat) patiently hoping for? He’s pushing for it.

“I don’t want to just ride around,” he said. “I want to give the fans something they can get excited about.”

Said Ganassi: “I don’t want him to ride around either. I want him to go to the front. He’s got the green light.”

A California prodigy

Larson began racing go karts when he was 7 in Elk Grove. It didn’t take him long to achieve prodigy-like status in northern California, especially after he moved from smaller, indoor tracks to outdoor facilities.

“It was like going from a little trail to a freeway and he never looked back,” said his dad, Mike Larson. “We were like, ‘Holy moly, he’s pretty good.’ There was usually a two-race learning curve before he’d start winning. He was always the youngest guy out there. He didn’t have time to adapt, but he’d do it anyway.”

Mike Larson estimates his son won about 130 kart races. He didn’t slow down when he moved up to sprint-car racing at age 14 and started racing around the country. One night, he won three races at Eldora (Ohio) Speedway, which is owned by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.

“That’s when people really started taking notice,” Mike Larson said.

Stewart said “you can bet the farm” that Larson would soon be a star.

Larson was noticed by NASCAR owners such as Roger Penske and Ganassi, who signed him as a development driver in 2012. Larson attended NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity combine that year and was the second-fastest on the track. It was the first time he had sat in a stock car.

“He had already shown how versatile he was,” Mike said. “But when he did that at the combine, that kind of separated him from a lot of others.”

Larson went right into Rev Racing, the competition arm of Drive for Diversity’s program for minorities and women, and won NASCAR’s K&N Pro East Series title.

He showed so much promise that Ganassi moved him straight into NASCAR’s Nationwide Series in 2013 – jumping past lower divisions, including the Truck Series.

Again, the learning curve was quick, but not without some hard lessons. In the season’s first Nationwide race at Daytona, Larson was part of a multicar crash during which his car went airborne and caromed into the catch-fence along the front stretch. The front of Larson’s car was demolished; he was OK.

Although he didn’t win a race in 2013, he had nine top-five finishes, was eighth in the point standings and was the series’ rookie of the year.

When Juan Pablo Montoya left Ganassi after last season to rejoin Indy Car racing, Larson took over the team’s No. 42 Chevy.

“People said we moved him up too early, but I don’t think so at all,” Ganassi said. “There are 10,000 young drivers in this country who deserve a shot at the big time. If people think he came in too early, that’s not my problem. They all deserve a shot, and we were able to do that with Kyle. People are pulling for that boy.”

‘Big for our community’

On Saturday, Larson made an appearance at Charlotte’s Asian Festival on the banks of Lake Norman. He gave a short speech to the crowd, signed autographs and browsed some of the cultural booths, all the while taking videos with his camera.

Philip Maung, a native of Myanmar who has lived in Charlotte for 25 years, shook Larson’s hand and planned on attending that night’s Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte (a race for which Larson hadn’t qualified).

“The first Asian-American to break into NASCAR is big for our community and we need to support him,” said Maung, who runs a chain of sushi restaurants in Charlotte. “I didn’t understand NASCAR before, but now I at least have an interest.”

Larson is glad to help NASCAR in its efforts to increase its international fan base.

“I’m sure there are a lot of Asians who don’t know there is an Asian NASCAR driver,” he said. “Maybe this can help open some doors, just to give fans more knowledge about NASCAR.”

Larson’s mother, Janet, is Japanese-American. Her parents were interred at a camp in Tula Lake, Calif., during World War II. Larson said he isn’t familiar with the details of his grandparents’ story.

He has been hesitant to talk about his heritage, preferring to let his on-track accomplishments speak for themselves. But as NASCAR continues to pursue a more diverse and international fan base, his story will gain more attention.

“He used to ask me, ‘What does my ethnicity have to do with anything? I just want to race,’ ” Mike Larson said. “But he’s starting to understand it more now. It’s important to know your community and to embrace it and understand that NASCAR might want to get some help with that. He can’t avoid it; it won’t go away. It’s part of becoming an adult.”

NASCAR knows what it has in Larson: a young star who has the potential to deliver a new audience.

“(NASCAR chairman) Brian France has said NASCAR wants to look like all of North America,” said Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s vice president of racing operations. “To do that, drivers need to look like that. We’ve got so many drivers coming through the system with established fan bases. Drivers like Kyle are changing that. They’re connecting us with new people, and that’s great for us.”

Not that different

Larson lives in Cornelius, where he rents an apartment in Birkdale Village. He says his off-track life isn’t much different than any other 21-year-old. He recently complained on Twitter that the air conditioning wasn’t working properly in his apartment.

But most of his energy is focused on his career. There are several Cup veterans he looks up to and now competes with, including Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon.

“I usually don’t ask much advice from them,” Larson said. “I’d rather learn by myself. If they offer advice, I take it. But I don’t ask.”

Gordon, who was also once a young star in northern California, understands.

“There’s a lot of pressure on rookies like Kyle these days, that they have to win the first year,” Gordon said. “And he may do it; he’s that good. But he’s got a long future ahead of him regardless.”

Staff writer Scott Fowler contributed.

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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