Larson's step up to require balance of power
October 11, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
CONCORD, N.C. -- It feels like being kicked back into your seat.
That's how Kyle Larson best describes the biggest difference between the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car he's racing for the first time this weekend, and the NASCAR Nationwide Series vehicle he drives on a regular basis. The step up to NASCAR's highest level -- which Larson will make full-time next season -- brings with it longer events and a deeper field of competition, but perhaps the most challenging aspect of the transition is its most fundamental -- a more powerful race car.
Sprint Cup cars are propelled by engines that make 850 horsepower, 200 more than those inside Nationwide or NASCAR Camping World Truck Series entries. That extra power can make a huge difference in how the vehicles are driven, as Brian Scott discovered when he qualified Thursday night for the first time at the Sprint Cup level.
"It feels like you're going about 50 mph faster going into the corners," Scott said. "The motor has a different sound. It gets you excited. I haven't had to qualify at a big track and lift and use the brake for a long, long time. We don’t do it anywhere on the Nationwide Series or in the Truck Series. Still I'm trying to figure that out, how to have speed with a car that has all this motor, and getting out of the throttle and using the brake and how to do all that."
He's not alone. Scott is one of three drivers making their Sprint Cup debut Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, along with Larson and Blake Koch. Larson and Austin Dillon are Nationwide drivers making the jump to Sprint Cup next season. And they're doing it in an era of more open but still relatively limited testing, and where the Nationwide and Sprint Cup cars are different animals due to their stark differences in horsepower.
No wonder, then, only one Sprint Cup rookie -- Joey Logano in 2009 -- has won a race in the past six seasons, that coming after a golden era where first-year drivers such as Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson all won straight out of the box. Next year brings a great chance to end the streak, with Larson and Dillon making the leap. But some point to rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., a two-time Nationwide champion currently 21st in Sprint Cup points, as a cautionary tale.
"The best young driver that's kind of beat up on those guys the last few years is Ricky Stenhouse. And he's had a little bit of a tough time adjusting to the Cup style of the cars," said Kevin Harvick, who won twice as a Sprint Cup rookie in 2001, and has won 20 more times since.
"It’s a lot harder for these guys coming up from those series to adapt to the Cup car, because they just have so much more power, less grip, from a downforce standpoint. … They're 25 mph slower than we are at some places down the straightaway on entry. You overdrive the (Nationwide) car constantly compared to how you would drive a Cup car. There's some potential in the young crop of drivers, but I think when you look at the success of the guys that have been around it, like myself and (Matt) Kenseth, and have driven these cars for a long time and evolved with the new generation of cars, they're hard to drive. And to come in and just adapt to them immediately is going to be tough."
Compare that to the early 2000s, when the cars had more in common under the hood. Drivers of Harvick's era also benefitted from a more liberal testing policy that allowed 12 two-day test sessions. "I got 24 test days to sort stuff out," Johnson said. Today, each organization is limited to four tests on sanctioned tracks -- granted, an improvement from a few years ago when due to financial concerns the practice was outlawed altogether. But the learning curve remains a steep one for drivers trying to take the next step.
"Everything just happens so much faster -- going down the straightaways, how you have to drive it into the corner," said Stenhouse, this season's likely Sunoco Rookie of the Year in Sprint Cup. "It definitely catches you off guard a little bit, and you definitely have to kind of calm yourself back down when you go to the (Nationwide) garage and say, 'Hey, this car is going to be a lot slower than the one I just got out of.' It takes a while to get used to it. I'm still getting used to it."
Next season, Larson will take over the No. 42 car at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing currently piloted by Juan Pablo Montoya. For his debut at Charlotte, he's driving a No. 51 car entered by Phoenix Racing, but essentially prepared by EGR. He may have another advantage as well -- a sprint-car background that prepared him for high-horsepower vehicles. The sprint cars he came up on had about 850 horsepower, same as a Sprint Cup car, but carried about half the weight.
"I just think being used to that extra horsepower, being able to have experience finessing the throttle, is a big help for the Cup Series," said the 21-year-old California native. Dillon can relate -- he cut his racing teeth in an 830-horsepower dirt car, and already has a top finish of 11th in limited Sprint Cup activity leading up to his rookie campaign with Richard Childress Racing next year.
"I have a lot more power in my dirt car when I get in it than my Nationwide car," Dillon said. "I feel like you have to be able to be adaptive and be able to change your driving style to whatever kind of car it is. I do believe there are some guys who are better in high-horsepower than others, and some who are better in lower-horsepower cars than other. It's something you have to be able to adapt to. … I want to be able to race anything I get in, so I just want to be able to adapt as much as I can."
Johnson is another driver who came up in higher-horsepower vehicles, in his case off-road trucks, and that experience left him needing more throttle to turn the car. He won just once at the Nationwide level, and has gone on to claim five championships on the Sprint Cup tour, proof that some drivers are better suited to more power under the hood. "Coming from high-horsepower cars, I think the Cup car is going to fit their style a little better," he said of Dillon and Larson, likely to battle one another for rookie honors next year.
Larson seems somewhat unfazed by it all, maintaining the same cool countenance he's displayed throughout his first season in the Nationwide Series. "I lift and get back in the gas at the same points," he said of driving the two different cars at Charlotte. Stenhouse, also a product of the sprint-car ranks, believes Larson will adapt quickly to the Sprint Cup level, as he's done everywhere else. The two drivers share the same management company, which sought Stenhouse's opinion on Larson potentially making the step up.
"He might as well. It’s either, you learn while you're doing it now, or you learn while you're doing it later," Stenhouse said. "At some point, you have to do it. And I think he's ready to do it."