Is Rising NASCAR Star Kyle Larson Taking on Too Much, Too Soon?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2013

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 01:  Kyle Larson, driver of the #51 Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau Chevrolet, sits in his car in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 1, 2013 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There's no disputing the fact Kyle Larson is a very talented race car driver. The 21-year-old native of Elk Grove, Calif., is likely going to be a big star one day.

But is Larson ready right here, right now for the biggest of big-time stages, NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series? Has he been moved up the development ladder too fast?

Or, now that he has the opportunity, is he a star ready to break out in a big way in the upcoming 2014 season?

I would never second-guess team owner Chip Ganassi, who I've known for nearly 30 years. I both respect and think the world of him. If Ganassi feels Larson is ready, then he likely is.

And there's no question Larson will attract a significantly younger demographic, which is sure to please primary sponsor Target, not to mention likely attract more Asian-Americans as potential NASCAR fans, given that Larson is the first driver in Sprint Cup history of Asian-American descent.

But for all the success Larson has had in the lower ranks of the racing world, I keep looking at his numbers, and—while I like what I see—I still have lingering doubts whether he's ready for prime time just yet.

In maybe another two or three years? Yes. Right now? I'm not so sure.

Consider Larson's track record in NASCAR competition to date:

  • He's competed in just four Sprint Cup races in his career, all this past season, with a best of 15th in the season-ending race at Homestead.
  • In just one full-time season on the Nationwide Series circuit, he qualified for all 33 races, with nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. He ultimately finished eighth in the championship battle.
  • He's competed in just six Camping World Trucks Series races, with one win, three top-five and five top-10 finishes.
  • His brightest shining moments have been in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, where in just one season (2012), he qualified for all 14 races, won two races, had eight top-five and 12 top-10 finishes, and ended the season by winning the championship in dominating fashion.
  • Rounding out his NASCAR-related stats, he's had just two starts in the ARCA series, with one top-five finish.

Add all those stats together, and it can't help but give someone pause whether Larson truly is ready for the Sprint Cup Series on a full-time basis.

Admittedly, I'm measuring Larson—as I've done several other young drivers—against Casey Atwood and his performance in the Cup Series.

For those who may not be familiar with Atwood's name, he was looked upon as a can't-miss superstar back in the late 1990s. He jumped to the Cup series full-time in 2001, with legendary Bill Elliott and eventually Jeremy Mayfield as his teammates, and Ray Evernham as team owner.

Atwood was considered Cup Rookie of the Year material at the age of 20. He would go on to finish 26th in his debut season and 35th in his sophomore stint in 2002.

Unfortunately, Atwood fell victim to too high of expectations. Almost as quickly as he came into the Cup series full-time (2001), he was gone from it by 2003. He's never appeared in another Cup race since then.

His career Cup record: 75 starts, one top-five, four top-10s, one pole, a career average start of 24.8 and average finish of 27.0.

Having bombed out of the Cup ranks, the Antioch, Tenn., native would go on to a very limited part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series, with his final season in 2009.

He has not been on a NASCAR high-level track (for either Cup, Nationwide or Trucks) since.

An even more recent example of potentially rushing a driver too fast is Penske Racing's Joey Logano. He was brought up to replace Tony Stewart in 2009 at the precocious age of 18!

It was pretty clear that even with all the success he had early on as a teen and in the lower racing ranks, Logano was a definite project to develop into a bona fide and consistent/winning Cup driver.

After four seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, where he never finished higher than 16th in any single campaign, Logano jumped to Penske in 2013 and began to realize much of the early expectations upon him, including making the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time and ultimately finishing a respectable eighth in the 10-race playoffs.

Remember Casey Atwood (right)? Here he is talking in his rookie season in 2001 to teammate and NASCAR legend Bill Elliott (left).
Remember Casey Atwood (right)? Here he is talking in his rookie season in 2001 to teammate and NASCAR legend Bill Elliott (left).Craig Jones/Getty Images

To his credit, Logano persevered, paid his dues and his future looks bright, particularly after what he did this past season.

Larson, on the other hand, I can't help but be concerned about the high expectations placed upon him as the heir apparent to Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet. Let's face it, Montoya never lived up to the expectations placed upon him when he came to the NASCAR world (which is why he's gone back to the IndyCar series for 2014). And this is a former world champion and Indianapolis 500 winner we're talking about, too.

I'd like nothing more than to have Larson prove my concern as misguided and much ado about nothing. I truly believe he's the real deal and will be a star one day.

But I'm just afraid, like Atwood, that star may burn out before it ever has a chance to really shine because he climbed the Sprint Cup racing mountain earlier than he probably should have.


Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.