April 1, 2013

Nationwide rookie Kyle Larson quickly rebuilding his reputation

Larson had an early reputation as a “wrecker”

The name Kyle Larson might sound familiar.

It belongs to the 20-year-old rookie who walked away from the disastrous finish to the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona in February, the one that left his car torn in half, his engine in the fence and his tires in the grandstand.

It has given him a higher profile than most rookies.

But he’d just as soon be known for winning races instead of walking away intact from spectacular crashes.

“Yeah, that’s all I get asked about anymore,” he said Monday at Texas Motor Speedway, where he tested in preparation for next weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300. “It’s been six weeks now.”

Still, it’s been a pretty good six weeks.

The young driver from Elk Grove, Calif., managed a 13th-place finish out of the last-lap wreck at Daytona, another 13th the following week and, after a crash knocked him out with a 32nd-place finish at Las Vegas, he came back with a runner-up at Bristol and a sixth at Fontana.

So despite two crashes, Larson sits seventh in the points standings for Texas-based Turner-Scott Motorsports.

“We just haven’t had the finishes,” Larson said. “The past two races have been pretty good. At Daytona, we were probably going to finish fourth or fifth, but then that wreck happened and we ended up 13th. Vegas, it felt like we had another fourth or fifth place car and we got caught up in the wreck.

“We should be a lot better in points than we are right now. Just had a little bad luck in two races.”

Larson could have made his own luck better.

Last month at Bristol, it was him and Kyle Busch coming to the finish line side by side on the short track. Larson could have tried to lay in to Busch’s fender to move him out of the way.

Larson had won with a move like that in a short-track K&N Pro Series race in February, when he spun the leader out on the final corner and won. But the move was criticized, although NASCAR did not penalize him.

So at Bristol, when Larson gave himself and Busch a chance to race cleanly for the win — which went to Busch — Larson earned back some of his reputation.

“I think that a lot of people have been looking at him to try to see if he’s going to be a wrecker or a checker and, even though he didn’t get the checkers, that’s how you get them,” Busch told reporters after the Bristol win.

And analyst Darrell Waltrip said, “I was wondering what he was going to do because he had a faster car and at that point he had a reputation — short-lived — but he had a reputation for being pretty aggressive to win a race. I think he gained back a lot of respect from people like myself that thought he was a kid that needed to learn to be a little bit more respectful.”

Larson appreciated the sentiment. But he’d like to get back under the radar, trying to win races, not being known as the driver who walked away at Daytona and bumps away the competition.

“I don’t pay too much attention to that kind of stuff because I don’t want to let it go to my head,” he said. “I like to stay humble. But obviously, I know what they’re saying. I think it’s really good for my career. But it doesn’t add any more pressure. I don’t put any more pressure on myself with those people talking about me. I just go out and try to do the best I can every race.”

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