When it was announced last year that Kyle Larson would replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, my first reaction was shock. It had nothing to do with Larson’s skill.
I saw him race at Rockingham Speedway in November 2012 when he won the K&N Pro Series East championship in his rookie year. He also won the Rookie of the Year title that same year. Only two other drivers in the series, Joey Logano and Ryan Truex, have won the championship in their rookie season. It was enough to make me sit up and take notice, and I wasn’t the only one.
Jeff Gordon spoke about Larson’s K&N championship, saying, “It’s extremely impressive to me. I think he came into it pretty late. To be able to win the K&N East Series against the talent that’s out there with the limited amount of experience that he has in a full-bodied stock car is extremely impressive and says a lot about his talent and skills.”
A few months later in April of the following year, again at Rockingham, Larson won his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race, in only five starts. As Gordon noted, what is most noteworthy about these accomplishments is that Larson comes from an open-wheel racing background.
And that is where the doubt crept in. Was Larson ready to tackle the Sprint Cup Series after only one full season in the Nationwide Series? We’ve seen other drivers who were arguably thrust into the Cup Series before they were ready with lackluster results.
Chip Ganassi had no such trepidation when he announced Larson as the new driver of the No. 42.
“We believe Kyle is the future of the sport,” Ganassi said. “He is a unique talent.”
He went on to say, “I’m sure there will be growing pains, but I think he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whenever his first year in the series is. But I think this is a good opportunity. My expectations and advice to him are keep the car on the track and run laps.”
As the season has progressed, I’m thrilled to say that at least in this particular situation, I was wrong.There have indeed been “growing pains” and it hasn’t always been pretty. Larson’s passion and determination to win sometimes causes him to push too hard and he has developed a love/hate relationship with the wall. Even with the miscues, he has managed to achieve six top-fives, 12 top-10s and one pole so far this season.
Luckily for Larson, Jeff Gordon has remained one of his most ardent supporters and seems willing to offer support and advice. Following today’s race, Gordon took a few moments to talk to Larson.
When asked what he said to the rookie, Gordon replied, “I’m a big fan. I like seeing young guys out there driving like that. That’s so much fun. That’s what this sport is all about. I just want to let him know what a great job I thought he did.”
Larson added that Gordon had also given him some advice on restarts but Gordon laughed and interrupted him to say, “Don’t tell them that part.”
After watching Larson race at Chicagoland Speedway, leading laps and battling for the win with the best drivers in the sport, one thing is clear. Chip Ganassi made the correct decision. And, thanks to his foresight, the fans get to go along for the ride as one of NASCAR’s future stars takes his first steps on that exhilarating journey.