Larson to make Sprint Cup Series debut on Saturday night at Charlotte
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- One year ago, Kyle Larson was within a few weeks of completing his debut season in the K&N Pro Series East, and Jimmy Elledge was preparing to move to California to become part of a business manufacturing winged go-karts. Saturday night, they'll work together in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series effort that was inevitable for one, and wholly unexpected for the other.
A breakout star in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, the 21-year-old Larson will make his debut at NASCAR's highest level Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of two races to prepare him for a full-time ride in Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 42 car next season. The other will come at Martinsville Speedway, where on Tuesday Larson was among 11 Sprint Cup drivers testing in preparation of the track's Oct. 27 event.
Both those outings will take place in the No. 51 of Phoenix Racing, although the vehicle will bear the same Target sponsorship Larson will have on the No. 42 next year. And in a change announced Tuesday, Larson's crew chief for his two Sprint Cup starts this year won't be Nick Harrison, the longtime Phoenix signal-caller who has left to take over the No. 33 Nationwide program at Richard Childress Racing. It will be Elledge, who was debating leaving the NASCAR business altogether until he received a call from Phoenix owner Harry Scott Jr.
No wonder Chris Heroy, regular crew chief for Juan Pablo Montoya and the No. 42 car Larson will inherit next season, was at Martinsville on Tuesday helping to put the vehicle through its paces.
"Jimmy really hasn’t been in it since 2010, so he's here learning kind of like I am," Larson said during a break in the test, which will continue Wednesday. "So it's good to have Chris here to teach us both a little bit, and make us both better."
Elledge worked the previous two seasons on the No. 31 Nationwide car of Justin Allgaier at Turner Scott Motorsports, which Scott co-owns. Last year he bought into a business that makes winged go-karts, smaller versions of the sprint cars in which both he and Larson got their start. Elledge said he had spent the past 11 months focused on his new endeavor in California, "with the understanding that there was a very strong possibility I would never be back in NASCAR again."
Until Harrison left, and Scott called. "I've had a good relationship with Harry Scott over the years, and he was in a situation where they needed some help," Elledge said. "Why they called me, I don’t know. But I'm glad they did, and glad to be in a position to help them out."
Saturday night will mark Elledge's first Sprint Cup race on the pit box since the final event of the 2010 season, with driver Kasey Kahne and the defunct Red Bull organization. The learning curve could be evident for both crew chief and driver, the former of whom hasn't worked with the Generation-6 cars, and the latter who tested the vehicle on the 1.5-mile layout last week.
Larson, though, has made a habit of excelling along every step of a career path that became accelerated when EGR announced it wouldn't extend the contract of Montoya, who will return to the open-wheel ranks next season with Roger Penske. One year ago, Larson was putting the finishing touches on a K&N title and had two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts to his name.
Saturday brings Charlotte, and his first taste of the big leagues. "I think I'm ready," he said. "We went and tested last week, and learned quite a bit. Got our car better. I've been there before in the Nationwide car, and I'll get lots of laps this week. We'll have lots of practice between the Nationwide car and the Cup car. So hopefully by Saturday at some point in the race, I'll be battling maybe in the top 15. I'd be pretty happy with that."
Elledge, who's known Larson for some time -- perhaps another reason he got the call from Scott -- is a believer.
"It wouldn't surprise me for him to do really, really well," the crew chief said. "But then again, I don’t think you can put those kind of expectations on him in his first start, because a lot of circumstances can happen that are beyond his control. But he's obviously handled everything to this point fairly easily. I'm sure there will be a learning curve at some point, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did really, really good."
Even so, a first Sprint Cup race can be a heady experience for a young driver. Kurt Busch remembered his, as a 22-year-old driving Jack Roush's No. 97 car at Dover in 2000.
"It's out of control with the nerves and the unknown factor. Making your first Sprint Cup start, in the top series of NASCAR, is something you'll never forget," Busch said during a break in testing. "When you get into the race, you hope you settle in and knock out all those emotions and the energy, and you want to settle into a rhythm, and it was tough.
"My first start at Dover, I qualified 10th. I had Jeff Gordon next to me … and Dale Jarrett's right (ahead) of me, and they dropped the green and everybody went that way. I was like, 'Why is everyone going so fast? I thought this was a 400-miler.' You're in awe, for one, that you're racing with the big dogs. And then secondly, you don't know anything about the car, the draft, the handling. It's a different game. The only way I figured it out was, I radioed that I thought I was dead last. They said, 'Yep, you're 43rd.' I'm like, 'OK. Whew. Let's go pick off one at a time.' I got back up to 18th, two laps down, for my first race. It was pretty cool."
Larson is trying to keep his expectations in check. Tuesday marked the first time he had ever even seen the 0.526-mile Martinsville track, whose unique characteristics lured so many drivers to test. His one race at Charlotte was a fourth-place run in the Nationwide race in May -- but in a field not as deep as the one he'll face Saturday night, and in a car not as powerful.
"If I could run in the top 20, I think that would be pretty good for my first time," he said. "Really, just looking forward to getting out there and trying to finish the race and learn a lot to get prepared for next season. Running Charlotte and here is going to help out a bunch, just getting used to the different cars, and I think this style of racing is a little bit different. These couple of races I'm going to run are hopefully going to help me."
They'll surely also help Elledge, who'll work as crew chief for the No. 51 team through this season's finale at Homestead. Getting to call two races for Larson is the biggest perk in his surprise fill-in role.
"He's going to go far in his racing career," Elledge said, "and even to remotely be some part of that is really cool."