CONCORD, N.C. – Kyle Larson can’t be goaded into setting an unreasonable expectation for his Sprint Cup debut.
He knows what Jamie McMurray did in 2002, when he grabbed an improbable victory for Chip Ganassi Racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his second career Cup start. But as Larson heads into tonight’s race at Charlotte for his Cup debut, he’s not expecting a trip to Victory Lane.
“Yeah, Jamie won in his second race,” Larson said. “But this is only my first.”
“I just want to learn a lot and to finish in the top 20. To run 15th to 20th would be good for my first start,” Larson said. “I read a quote from Kurt Busch that he ran 18th in his first Cup race. I’d say that would be a good start.”
There’s been plenty of hype around the 21-year-old wunderkind even though he has yet to complete a full season in stock cars. His background is in sprint cars, and Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon have been raving about Larson for years.
It’s not unlike Joey Logano, who was lauded by NASCAR heavyweights long before he had the minimum age to compete at the national level. As Joe Gibbs Racing counted down the days to Logano’s 18th birthday, it became impossible for Logano to ever live up to the expectations.
After five seasons, Logano left Gibbs and moved to Penske Racing. Now 23, and in his first season with his new team, he finally qualified for his first Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Larson hears the comparisons, but believes he’s in a better position than Logano.
“I feel less pressure because Joey was 18,” Logano said. “But I want to prove the doubters wrong. It makes me mad when they say they don’t want me to end up like Joey Logano. Well, Joey’s in the Chase. He won a race this year. He’s won a few Cup races. I think Joey’s done fine.”
Larson gets his chance to prove the doubters wrong with Chip Ganassi, who gave him a developmental deal. Since Ganassi competes in NASCAR, IndyCar and sports cars, Larson might have had a chance to pick which path to take and with open wheel roots, IndyCar might have been the popular choice. Instead, Larson chose NASCAR.
“I just think there are more opportunities in NASCAR,” he said. “The fan base is bigger, there is more money to be made. I think the Indy 500 would be awesome to run, but it’s harder to progress in IndyCar. There’s just a lot more opportunity over here.”
Progress he has done.
Ganassi got Larson in a fulltime Nationwide Series ride this year with Turner Scott Motorsports, and Larson entered Friday night with 15 top-10 finishes and ranked ninth in the series standings. His development has moved along fast enough that Ganassi felt comfortable not renewing the contract for Juan Pablo Montoya at the end of the season and moving Larson up to Cup in the flagship No. 42 Target Chevrolet.
Larson admits he’s had his eye on the ride all year.
“I had hoped,” he said. “I had hoped to be in a Cup car by the end of this year, or next year, and I was aware of Juan’s situation. The best situation was the way it worked out, and so I just had my fingers crossed that’s the way it would be.”
To get Larson ready for next season he’ll race at Charlotte and Martinsville later this month in the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing in a car prepared by the Ganassi team and sponsored by Target. The crew chief will be former Ganassi crew chief Jimmy Elledge, but the pit crew will be a Phoenix Racing crew.
Larson also run the season finale at Homestead if a deal can be finalized.
When Larson finally gets into the No. 42 he’ll be paired with crew chief Chris “Shine” Heroy, who spent the past two seasons with Montoya. He’s tested with Larson so far and has an idea of what he’ll be working with next season.
“I see him being one of those guys who takes the first half of the race figuring out what he’s got, and the second half of the race going to the front,” Heroy said, comparing Larson to Kevin Harvick.
“It’s our job to mold him and help him, but let him do his thing. I’ll never tell him how to drive. But it’s our job to tell him what other people are doing and what we see out there, but it’s always going to be our decision.”
Heroy does have one big task in front of him: Larson has been up front all year about his lack of knowledge about stock cars. He more or less shows up to drive them and isn’t able to offer much in terms of setup help.
Heroy found that out firsthand during their first test together when he sent Larson a packet of data in advance. As the two then drove the track together in a street car, Heroy asked Larson about the information and the driver couldn’t answer.
“I asked him, ‘Did you get the information I sent you?’ and he said `Yeah, I don’t know how to read data,’” Heroy said. “I just laughed and said, ‘OK, we’ll work on that.’” It’s easy. Not difficult. I’d rather he be up front and we know that’s something we’ve got to work on with him.”
Larson’s succeeding to date by doing everything by feel. He’ll have raced close to 80 events by the end of the year, and plans to leave Charlotte as soon as the weekend ends for a sprint car race in California.
He doesn’t want to study data or go over notes. Larson just wants to race as much as he can.
“I just want to get out there and see how it goes, see if I’m slow or I’m fast,” Larson said.