Strong Nationwide Series start puts Sprint Cup future in focus
FONTANA, Calif. -- Kyle Larson turned his first laps at Auto Club Speedway during Friday’s afternoon practice, then boarded Tony Stewart’s plane for a quick trip north to Stockton for a World of Outlaws sprint car feature -- which Larson won with Stewart finishing 9th -- on Friday night before returning to Fontana for his fifth NASCAR Nationwide Series start Saturday afternoon.
Larson is ranked ninth in the Nationwide Series championship standings and is fresh off his best ever NASCAR showing -- a runner-up finish to Kyle Busch by half a hood-length last week at Bristol Motor Speedway. Considered one of the sport’s brightest up-and-comers, the questions about his future were inevitable even before he took his first Nationwide green flag in February.
Larson’s running well -- he turned in the second-fastest time in Friday’s practice -- running often and racing everywhere. He’ll spend the upcoming Nationwide Series off weeks racing sprint cars up and down the West Coast.
So, when will that include NASCAR’s marquee Sprint Cup Series?
“I haven’t heard anything about that,’’ Larson, 20, said Friday, flashing a broad grin. “I’m just going to keep trying to do the best I can. If (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) wants to move me up, hopefully I’m ready and have learned enough in the Nationwide Series to prepare me for the Cup Series.
“I’m still taking it one race at a time and having a blast with what I’m doing right now, so I’m not looking anymore forward than where I am right now. I’m having fun racing Nationwide right now.’’
One of the first questions Ganassi got when announcing Larson’s hire was how long until his Cup debut.
“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves here,’’ Ganassi said in February. “He hasn’t even run a Nationwide race yet. Let’s just go one step at a time here. All we’re doing is looking to get him some seat time. Right now his solid plan involves Nationwide.
“I think a car owner’s job, number one, is managing expectations, whether it’s your drivers, sponsors, employees. There’s no question that everybody’s eyes are going to be on Kyle and the job that he’s doing.’’
What he’s done is turn in three top-13 finishes in four Nationwide races -- one memorable for his car’s final lap crash at Daytona International Speedway and another for the thrilling final lap duel with Busch.
“Everywhere I go I still get asked about that wreck,’’ Larson said. “Hopefully with me running well and stuff, people will forget about it and start remembering me more for running up front and battling hard.
“It will change. Everyone’s not going to know me as the guy who wrecked at Daytona for the rest of my career hopefully. It’ll just take time. I’m not too worried about it. Just go out there and run well. I know after Bristol, a lot more people have been asking about that race than Daytona.’’
If you weren’t familiar with Larson before Daytona Speedweeks, chances are you were after it.
Even before he made newspaper headlines and television highlights in the Nationwide race, he won the inaugural Battle of the Beach NASCAR Late Model race with a controversial last lap maneuver. Approaching the checkered flag he spun out leader C.E. Falk to take the win. He got some criticism for the bold move, however, something uncharacteristic for him.
“It’s definitely been new,’’ Larson said. “My whole career I’ve always been kinda the guy everyone likes and after the Battle of the Beach and the incident I had there in Late Model race, I got a lot of criticism for it. But it didn’t affect me really at all. I just tried to shrug it off and move on. I don’t really think too hard about anything whether it’s good talk or bad talk.
“I just go out there and try to race and try to change people’s mind. I know maybe a lot of people might gain respect for me from Bristol not getting into Kyle Busch at all … I’ve just got to try to gain all the fans, and even the other drivers’ respect back and I think I’ve been doing pretty well with that so far.’’
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