NASCAR’s lower ranks are filled with development drivers who are going to make a big impact in the Sprint Cup Series over the course of the next decade. But no driver has as much potential as Kyle Larson.
To many NASCAR fans, Larson is best known for his horrific crash in February’s Nationwide Series race at Daytona.
However, he is much more than that. He is the best driving prospect since Jeff Gordon.
And in this interview, a clip from an episode of Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain recorded last year, Gordon said Larson makes him “look like nothing.”
But what makes Larson better than all the other drivers in NASCAR’s minor leagues? It’s a combination of qualities that every champion needs.
Some of NASCAR’s top drivers of today, including Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne, grew up racing sprint cars and midgets on some of the fastest short tracks in the country.
Driving a car sideways around other cars with no spotters for 30 laps takes an incredible amount of car control, and Larson makes it look easy.
This video shows just how good Larson's car control is when driving to the limit. In this qualifying run from Hanford Speedway, Larson muscles an ill-handling car around the speedway, something that the best Sprint Cup drivers are asked to do on a weekly basis.
Larson is probably the most aggressive driver to come up through the ranks since Kyle Busch. He is not afraid to take any opening that is presented to him, and when it comes down to the end of the race, don’t be surprised to see him put the bumper to the car in front.
In this video from February's Whelen All-American Series race at Daytona, Larson’s car is battered and beaten, but the youngster is still able to chase down C.E. Falk for the lead in the closing laps.
Once he gets there, he’s not afraid to use the chrome horn.
Though this particular example was probably an overly aggressive move—I don’t think a guy like Jimmie Johnson would take very kindly to having his race end like that—it’s a lot easier to restrain a driver than it is to teach him aggression.
And Larson has plenty of it.
It’s very hard to get Kyle Larson rattled. The fact that he was able to come back and race a week after the horrific final-lap crash at Daytona is a testament to that.
Larson recognizes his calm demeanor as one of his strengths. In an interview with Speedway Media’s Mary Jo Buchanan, Larson touched on his poise.
“That’s what I think people would find surprising about me,” he said. “I never get winded. I think it’s just because I stay calm.”
Listen to the in-car audio on any given Sunday, and you will quickly find out that even the best drivers in the sport lack the coolness under pressure that Larson has.
Tony Stewart has long been considered the most versatile driver in motorsports, having won the USAC Triple Crown, an IndyCar Series championship, three Sprint Cup titles and multiple World of Outlaws events.
Larson has been just as versatile, winning in everything he has raced on his way to the NASCAR Nationwide Series this year. His talent is not lost on Stewart, who called him "absolutely phenomenal" in this Wind Tunnel interview from last year.
After winning countless dirt races in midgets and sprint cars, Larson has been nothing short of spectacular in his limited time in stock cars. Just look at his statistics since making his K&N East Series debut last year (all statistics courtesy of Racing-Reference.info):
K&N East: 14 Races, 2 Wins, 8 Top-Fives, 12 Top-Tens
Trucks: 5 races, 1 Win, 2 Top-Fives, 4 Top-Tens
Nationwide: 16 Races, 0 Wins, 4 Top-Fives, 11 Top-Tens
That’s 35 total races under the NASCAR banner, and 27 times he has finished in the top 10.
Even if we just look at Nationwide Series results, Larson has achieved more in a shorter amount of time than today's biggest stars. It took Jeff Gordon 33 races to record 11 top-10s. Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson took 46 races each. Even Kyle Busch took 18 races to reach that mark.
Larson is adapting quickly, and it is only a matter of time before he starts winning races in the Nationwide Series.
The biggest advantage Kyle Larson has is Chip Ganassi, who signed him to a developmental deal in late 2011 and has been overseeing his career ever since.
It was Ganassi who got Larson his ride with Turner Scott Motorsports in the Nationwide Series this year, and it is Ganassi who will bring him to Sprint Cup in the near future.
Yes, Ganassi has swung and missed in the past (Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson never panned out), but he has had enormous success in the past, especially in IndyCar, where he gave big breaks to Alex Zanardi, Jimmy Vasser, Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon.
His NASCAR track record isn't bad either. Ganassi salvaged the career of Sterling Marlin, nearly taking him to a series title in 2001 and 2002. He also gave Jamie McMurray his first big break and has powered him to four of his six Cup wins. Even Montoya has had moments of brilliance since moving to stock cars, winning twice and finishing eighth in the 2009 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
With Chip Ganassi in his corner, Larson is virtually guaranteed a Sprint Cup opportunity within the next two years.
Once he gets there, the sky is the limit.