Larson ready to win a watch at Rolex 24 at Daytona
January 03, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kyle Larson humbly took a seat, flanked by reigning Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan and sports car ace Marino Franchitti as his Target Chip Ganassi team unveiled its latest all-star Rolex 24 at Daytona driver lineup Friday.
Just in front of Larson on the Daytona International Speedway Media Center stage sat five-time Rolex 24 champion Scott Pruett and 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray -- all participating in this weekend’s Roar Before the Rolex 24 test session.
When Larson, a 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate returns to Daytona’s famous high banks for the Jan. 25-26 twice around-the-clock classic, he’ll make his sports car and endurance racing debut co-driving with Kanaan, reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and Franchitti in the second team car, the No. 02 Target Chip Ganassi Ford prototype.
“It feels like I’m in a dream of some sort,’’ the 21-year old Larson said with a big grin.
“It’s going to be a big year for me with the Sprint Cup Series and adding this to the list of races I get to run.”
Larson and his Sprint Cup Series Ganassi teammate McMurray are hoping to add their names to a list of NASCAR full-timers with Rolex victory watches -- an elite group that also includes the other NASCAR driver entered in the inaugural TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race, A.J. Allmendinger (who will drive for Michael Shank Racing).
As the diverse and decorated Ganassi group traded inside jokes with another on stage and kidded about all the different languages spoken at the lunch table, Larson beamed.
A sprint car prodigy, the 2013 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year and the first of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity graduates to earn a full-time Cup ride, Larson brings respectable credentials of his own. Yet it was obvious he couldn’t help but appreciate the company he’s keeping in Daytona's sports car paddock.
“You grow up watching the NASCAR guys then you’re like, ‘wow’ when you meet them," said Larson, who will replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet in 2014. “And then watching the guys in different series there’s a ‘wow’ factor to meeting them and working with them.
“It’s cool to get to know their personalities because you don’t get to see them except in a race car on TV. I’m glad to be a part of a team full of great guys and great drivers.’’
Then, glancing over at the others, Larson joked, “I’ve got the least amount of personality on this team.’’
Although Larson drove the Ganassi Ford in a test here last month, he didn’t get a lot of time in the car Friday, which featured brisk winds and temperatures in the 40s -- one of the coldest days in a year.
However, that’s not to say Larson wasn’t getting plenty of advice from his veteran teammates.
Despite the laughs and smiles at the press conference, the team’s full-time TUDOR United SportsCar Championship driver Pruett was quick to remind everyone that this race is “serious business.” For him and his co-driver in the No. 01 Ganassi Ford, Memo Rojas, it isn’t only a prestigious world-renowned event, it’s the first race toward a season title.
The Ganassi two-car effort has five Rolex 24 wins and two runner-up finishes in the last eight years.
“The biggest thing coming into this race is to understand it’s a 24-hour race and that’s (important) for anyone coming in,’’ Pruett said. “We’ve had rookies the last few years and so we absolutely spend a lot of time, all the drivers, reminding that when you come here you can’t take a chance getting tangled with a guy.
“It’s a lot of spending time just helping them get in their head it’s a whole different view of how you race guys. Here, you give them a lot of room and remember 24 hours is a lot of time.’’
Larson is well aware of the unique challenges this race will present. And that’s part of the reason he was so eager to compete in it.
“Being with Chip Ganassi … I know a lot of his NASCAR drivers have come over and done this race so I had my fingers crossed that I’d get the chance to run it,’’ Larson said. “But I didn’t know it would be this year. I thought maybe next year after he could see how I did in a stock car first.
“I asked Juan (Montoya) how he liked the race and the cars and he said the cars are extremely fun to drive and this year’s cars will be even better with the new rules. And Jamie (McMurray) says this is his favorite race of the year. So that makes it even more exciting for me and brings the intensity level up.
“I can’t wait to get back here in two weeks to race. I’d like to win a watch.”