With the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR is quickly introducing to fans its next generation of Monster Energy Cup Series drivers.
The most exciting, arguably, is Kyle Larson.
“He’s constantly trying to find more speed, push the limits, find the edge,” four-time champion Jeff Gordon said.
After winning his first Cup race in 2016, Larson was NASCAR’s breakout star of 2017, with four victories. Only champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch led more laps.
Fans cheer his daring passing and gaining momentum on the high line. Many drivers prefer to run low, which is a shorter lap distance, and find the bits of tire rubber and debris which typically build up near the outside wall to unsettle their cars.
“Nobody works the high line better than Kyle,” Gordon said.
Taken to a racetrack by his parents at one week old, Larson, 25, came up through a variety of open-wheel cars on short dirt ovals. Team owner Chip Ganassi signed him as a development driver in 2012 and he was the Xfinity Series’ Rookie of the Year in 2013, the first Asian-American to do so in a NASCAR national series. Larson replaced Juan Pablo Montoya on Ganassi’s Cup team the next year.
Larson won last weekend’s Xfinity event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the DC Solar Chevrolet and finished third in the Cup race in the Credit One Bank Chevy.
Larson and Ganassi spoke with azcentral sports in advance of Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Question: Why can you run the high line when others can’t?
Larson: I think it goes to my background growing up racing on dirt tracks. Knowing how to run the cushion — putting the right rear (tire) up in the moisture (layer of dirt thrown to outside of the track) at the top to get a lot of grip. In a stock car it can be kind of the same feeling, in a way, running next to the wall. I kind of feel the air packed between the wall and my car. You’ll get grip that way.
Q: What drew your attention to Larson?
Ganassi: There was a week when he was in the ASA race at New Smyrna (Speedway, Fla.) and I saw him in Daytona the next night and get in a (Camping World Truck Series) truck the next night. I saw this kid go from car-to-car-to-car and then in a sprint car in 4-5 nights. He was competitive in all of them. I thought, “How the hell does a guy, with virtually no practice, no testing, do what he did?”
Q: What makes him special?
Ganassi: The thing you can’t see is the throttle trace (on computer.) He has great throttle control, that he learned in sprint car racing, and he’s been able to apply that to a Cup car in certain instances.
Larson: I would say I don’t really have that great of throttle control. I’m saying it’s good balance on the car and the commitment to enter (turn) right on the wall. When you go to a new track in sprint cars you have to adapt because you might only get five laps of practice. I felt like when I got into NASCAR, with an hour-and-a-half practice, I could get speed in the first 15-20 minutes. I feel like a lot of times, the more practice you get in stock cars, the better chance you have of screwing up your (chassis) set-up.
Q: Most owners don’t allow their drivers to race sprint cars or on dirt. Why do you?
Ganassi: I let him because he asked me to and it’s important. The easiest thing for a car owner to do is slow a guy down. It’s hard to speed them up. I want to make sure I’m letting him stay current in what keeps him sharp. If it takes a little bit of racing on the dirt, that’s what we’re going to do.
Q: Kyle says he’d like to race in the Indianapolis 500. Are you going to field a car for him?
Ganassi: We talk about it often. But I think after he saw Scott Dixon’s accident last year, he thought maybe there’s a little bit more to it than just hopping in those cars and going.
Q: What do you think when fans say you’re the most exciting driver in NASCAR?
Larson: I think I’m exciting to watch just because of my aggressiveness and all that stuff I learned on dirt tracks.