When we first learned Kyle Larson’s name in NASCAR, it was when he went flying in the air at Daytona. It was also the first race of his rookie Nationwide Series year.
Almost a year later, Kyle Larson is getting ready to take the Sprint Cup Series by storm.
Along with Larson, several other rookies will be entering the Sprint Cup Series. One of them happens to be the 2013 Nationwide Champion.
In a competitive rookie class, how will Larson stand out? Who is this young driver, and what are his expectations for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series?
After only one year in the Nationwide Series, this impressive driver will compete against the best in stock car racing.
By the time the 2014 season is over, everyone will know just who Kyle Larson is.
Journey to the Sprint Cup Series
Kyle Larson grew up racing in California. Like many Sprint Cup drivers before him, he perfected his style on dirt tracks.
"I looked up to Jeff (Gordon) a lot growing up," Larson said. "His background was in Sprint-car racing before he ever got to NASCAR. I kind of followed the same path as him, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne. Those three I really looked up to."
He said he was racing in go-karts by the time he was seven and had plenty of support from his parents.
“My Dad was a huge race fan growing up," Larson said. "He grew up a few doors down from a Sprint-car family, so he's been going to races all his life. He met my mom in junior high, and they started dating when they were 16 or so, and he got her into it. Now she's almost a bigger race fan than he is.”
While Larson's parents are fans of the sport, they're also very supportive of him.
"They're huge supporters of my career," he said. "It’s nice having my mom, who's videotaped every race I've ever ran, and my dad took care of all my go-kart stuff growing up, (including my) website, articles (and) financial stuff now. He's been a great supporter."
Larson had the skill needed to handle go-karts, and when he was a teenager, he competed in everything from United States Auto Club Midget to World of Outlaws Sprint cars.
In 2011 Larson won the 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway, better known for its owner, Tony Stewart.
Stewart praised Larson in a discussion with Al Pearce of Autoweek.
"That kid is a lot better than (Jeff) Gordon or I was at his age," he said. "You’re going to be hearing about him for a long time. He’s a special talent."
Larson saw continued success in 2012 as he won six USAC National Midget races.
His constant success at the lower levels of racing helped him get signed in 2012 by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing as part of the driver development program.
He raced in a stock car for the first time that year and went on to win the race.
2012 was the first NASCAR touring series for Larson, and he showed just how talented he is.
“I ran the K & N Series two years ago now, and I was able to get the championship," he said. "This year Chip Ganassi moved me up to the Nationwide Series."
Most fans remember his first Daytona race. During the final lap, he was in a bad accident and went into the fence.
He moved on from that wreck to have success in the Nationwide Series, as he competed against the top drivers in the sport.
He didn’t get to see victory lane in the Nationwide Series, but that didn’t slow him down. He raced outside the Nationwide Series as well, mentioning that he made it to 100 races this year.
He won 16 of them.
Larson has been impressive throughout his career, and he quickly impressed Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, who offered him the chance to drive the 42 car for the 2014 season.
Now Larson is gearing up for his first full-time Sprint Cup Series. Even in the offseason, he refuses to slow down.
“I'll probably race a go-kart in a couple of weeks just for fun at Red Bluff," he said. "It's where I ran my very first race."
Preparing for His Biggest Challenge Yet
With all of his accomplishments over the last couple of years, and even considering how well he ran in the Nationwide Series last year, an important question remains about Kyle Larson: Is he ready for the Sprint Cup Series?
Most rookies heading into NASCAR’s main series run into struggles.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr., for example, managed to win back-to-back Nationwide Series championships, and while he ran decently for a handful of Sprint Cup Series races, he also ran into struggles during the 2013 season.
Larson knows just how good of a driver Stenhouse is, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about the possibility of running into struggles after competing in the Nationwide Series for one full year before making the big move into the Sprint Cup.
“I like thinking that maybe going up as soon as I am (able) almost helps me a little bit because maybe Ricky was too used to one type of vehicle," Larson said, explaining that the Cup car has 200 more horsepower and rear chambers, making it different and more difficult to drive than the Nationwide Series car.
Larson said he thinks the extra horsepower will help him since he comes from a Sprint-car background. Sprint cars, he said, have the same amount of horsepower but are half the weight of Cup cars.
"Being used to that acceleration and wildness of a Sprint car," he said "is going to help with the Cup car."
Larson has been testing throughout the offseason as he gets ready to tackle 2014.
"I'll test a bunch," he said, adding that he's already done so in Charlotte, N.C.
"I tested the Grand Am car at Daytona, and then we'll do probably five or six tests in January and February."
Larson ran four races in the Sprint Cup Series this year to help him adjust to Sprint cars.
Testing during the offseason is one way for Larson to adjust to the Sprint Cup, but he's also gotten advice from his 2013 teammates.
He is taking over for Juan Pablo Montoya, who is heading to the Indy Car Series. There's no hard feelings between the drivers though, as Larson said Montoya has helped him get ready for the Sprint Cup.
“He helped me a lot too when I was racing those handful of cup races, teaching me a few different things and giving me feedback," Larson said. "He was a great teammate, and I'm excited to see how he'll do in the Indy Car Series.”
Larson can also turn to his current teammate, Jamie McMurray, for help. McMurray has several years’ experience in the Sprint Cup Series and even found himself in victory lane at Talladega, something Larson is looking forward to learning from the veteran driver.
“He's got a ton of experience so I'm really looking forward to working with Jamie," Larson said, "especially learning how he gets around those super-speedways so fast. He seems to win a lot of those races. That's a totally different type of racing than what I've ever done.”
Larson's preparation for the 2014 season doesn't end there though, as he also has help from his major sponsor, Target.
“I think they're the greatest brand in the cup series," he said. "Everybody knows the Target logo. I'm sure once the season starts it's going to build my popularity and brand up even more, so I'm really excited for that."
He said Target has been with Chip (of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) for 25 years.
In the sport of stock-car racing, sponsorship is huge, and with Target fully behind the young driver, he has a long-term partner who will support him as he grows as a driver in the Sprint Cup Series.
Even with support and advice, however, Larson could still struggle. Every driver has tracks where the excel and tracks where they can't seem to get anything right. Larson is no different.
"It seem like this year I was better at the short tracks, but I enjoy the mile-and-a-half (tracks) the most," he said. "I feel like that's where my driving style kind of comes out. I'd say my weakest would probably be Martinsville—the really short tracks where you have to get hard on the breaks."
He named Martinsville, Richmond and Phoenix and some of his worst tracks this year.
Larson has challenges ahead of him, and even though he's had success in his racing career, fans will still question if he's ready to make the move to Sprint Cup after one year in the Nationwide Series.
The only way to tell if Larson is ready for the Sprint Cup Series, though, is to see how he handles his first full-time season and if he can meet his 2014 season goals.
Ready to Impress in 2014
“If I can be consistent every week and finish the races, be on a lead lap of every race, have a lot of good finishes and be close to making the Chase at the end of the year, that's probably my main goal," he said. “If everything goes as good as that test did a couple of weeks ago, I can see it happening.”
Larson has already set goals for himself and the 42 team before getting ready for his first Sprint Cup season. While these goals may seem somewhat realistic, it’s hard to decide if he will be able to compete in every race.
The 42 team will need to get used to their new driver, and the biggest question with Larson will be how well he can give feedback to make changes to his car when he’s struggling during a race.
Still, if he can run as well as he did during his first Nationwide year, NASCAR fans will have a new driver to cheer for.
Besides trying to compete at every track and having good finishes, Larson will also try to win Rookie of the Year, he said.
He won honors last season in the Nationwide Series, but this year it will be much more of a challenge.
Larson will compete against several up-and-comers for those honors, and one of them will be Austin Dillon.
“I really want to beat Austin Dillon because he's the current champion," Larson said. "He's done amazing things so far in his NASCAR career."
Larson will have his hands full competing with Dillon for the Rookie of the Year title, but for NASCAR fans, it should lead to an exciting battle between two of the best newcomers moving into the Sprint Cup Series.
Larson has risen up through the world of racing relatively quickly, and he has plenty of accomplishments to show how much success he’s had.
Now he’s getting set for his biggest challenge yet. We saw last year just how good this young driver can be, and with support from drivers such as Tony Stewart and the 42 team behind him, Larson will try to make his goals a reality in 2014.
So who is Kyle Larson?
He’s an impressive driver trying to bring Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing to the top, ready to take the Sprint Cup Series by storm.
All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.