Kyle Larson Affirms Elite Talent with Incredible Weekend in Fontana

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 24, 2014

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When Chip Ganassi chose Kyle Larson to replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, it likely resulted in a number of raised eyebrows.

Here was a 21-year-old kid from Northern California, who had spent exactly one season in the Nationwide Series, finished eighth, didn't win a race but had nine top-five and 17 top-10 finishes in 33 starts.

And that was enough to justify a promotion and jump up to NASCAR's elite circuit?

Sure, Larson had been an established driver—and winner—in go-kart, sprint car and midget racing, but racing in the Sprint Cup series is an entirely different situation.

Yes, Larson was good and displayed obvious talent, but was he really ready to run fenders with NASCAR's best?

While I had my doubts initially, I also have known and respected Ganassi for well over a quarter-century. If he believed Larson to be ready to go prime time in NASCAR, then who was I or anyone else to question such a move?

Still, I never counted on just how quickly Larson would make a big impact, to prove he really and truly belonged. I figured it would take him at least a year in the Cup series before he would start living up to Ganassi's faith and expectations.

It wound up being five weeks.

With the way he won Saturday's Nationwide Series race (his first triumph in the series), deftly holding off hard-charging Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch in the final seven laps and driving, well, there's only one word that not only comes to mind but also best describes Larson's accomplishment: outstanding

Lest we think Larson's effort was a fluke, he came right back the following day in NASCAR's marquee series and just barely missed winning that race as well—ironically finishing behind one of the guys he beat Saturday, the younger Busch brother.

Once again, the same word comes to mind about Larson's performance Sunday: outstanding.

In a way, Larson's overall weekend performance really isn't all that surprising. Consider these facts:

  • Even though he's racing full-time and earns points in the Sprint Cup series, Larson is also racing full-time in the Nationwide Series.
  • And in his first five NNS races, he has a win, runner-up, third- and fourth-place finish, with his worst overall showing being 10th in the season-opening race in Daytona. If he were eligible to earn points in NASCAR's junior circuit, he'd be the points leader after Saturday's win.
  • In Sprint Cup, Larson started off a bit shaky in his first season—certainly understandable for a rookie—but he's come a long way in a very short time. After wrecking in the season-opening Daytona 500 (finished 38th), Larson's performance has steadily improved in the following four races: 20th (Phoenix), 19th (Las Vegas), 10th (Bristol) and Sunday's runner-up finish at Fontana.

But Larson is more than just talented behind the wheel. He's quickly becoming a fan and media favorite. He's soft-spoken, almost shy, yet gives intelligent answers to reporters' questions, enjoys interacting with autograph- and photo-seeking fans and isn't letting success change him.

What we saw this past Saturday and Sunday was just scratching the surface for the promise that Larson holds.

You better get used to it because you're going to see and hear a lot more of it from this outstanding—there's that word again—young man.

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