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At Pocono, Larson proves quite shifty indeed

June 09, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Larson

Rookie leads laps, scores top-five finish in first Cup start at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. -- Kyle Larson proved to be quite a shifty character after all.

The same driver whose inexperience with gear-shifting led to blown engines in two test sessions and was required to drive a manual-transmission vehicle as his personal car looked like an old hand Sunday. Larson led seven laps and finished fifth in his Sprint Cup Series debut at Pocono Raceway, completing an impressive weekend that also saw him dominate an ARCA event.

"To be honest with you, I did miss a couple of shifts," said the Chip Ganassi Racing rookie. "Just twice, which is a lot better than it probably would've been if I didn't practice shifting a whole lot. Surprisingly, it was only those two times when I was battling people when I was pretty excited, so I thought it was a good day."

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Since the Nationwide Series does not compete at Pocono, Larson had never been to the 2.5-mile track until a test here the week before the race. Pocono is the only oval track that requires drivers to shift gears at speed, and Larson's inexperience in that area led to a blown engine. At another test in Road Atlanta, it was the same story. Larson may have joked earlier in the week about being "the worst shifter in NASCAR" but within the No. 42 team, the concerns were real.

"It was a very serious concern," said crew chief Chris Heroy. "So he did good."

To say the least. Larson spend the latter stages of the race battling for position with polesitter and four-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin, who ultimately edged the rookie for fourth. "I thought we were a little bit better than Denny at the end, but he did a good job holding me off," Larson said. "But I'll take a top-five here at Pocono."

Particularly since that test here, Larson has been required by the Ganassi team to wheel a black, stick-shift Camaro around his home in North Carolina. As impressive as it was, Sunday's performance doesn't change anything on that front -- Heroy said Larson will continue to drive the manual vehicle through the June 22 Sprint Cup event on the Sonoma Raceway road course, another facility where competitors also must shift gears.

Pocono, though, was major progress. Larson competed in the track's Saturday ARCA event to gain more experience for the NASCAR race, and in both of them looked like a seasoned pro. "He's come a long way," Heroy said. "From blowing a motor in testing, to finishing top-five here and leading some laps -- that’s what we try to do. That’s what he's done all year. You give him something to fix, and he fixes it. Really happy about it."

Saturday's tune-up seemed to help. "I think I learned a little bit (from the ARCA race) that helped me through Turn 2," Larson said. "The ARCA car is a lot slower, so you have to roll a bit quicker, and I think I just took that into today a little bit. It seemed like I was rolling quicker through Turn 2 than I had been in the test I did last week and in all of practice this week. Also, the car was better, too, so I was able to roll with it quicker. Just a little bit of technical stuff."

Whatever it was, it worked, allowing Larson to maintain 10th in points. And once again a 21-year-old who some thought might not be ready for NASCAR's top level continues to defy expectations.

"He's a true talent," Heroy said. "We're very lucky to have him. He's done a great job for us. You hope for a driver like this. You always temper your excitement a little. But he's everything. We've just got to get him a win now."

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