NASCAR & Auto Racing

Kyle Larson is NASCAR’s next budding superstar

Kyle Larson is seeing his star status grow with a strong start to the season.
Kyle Larson is seeing his star status grow with a strong start to the season. AP

Kyle Larson is the toast of NASCAR these days.

Kevin Harvick compared him with a young Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt Jr. calls Larson a future star of the sport, too, saying fans will embrace his personality because he’s a “really, really cool guy.”

And it’s easy to see why there is so much buzz throughout the garage about Larson. He’s easy to like.

Larson flies commercial like most. Yes, he wants the miles like every other frequent flier. He’ll get into an occasional fender bender like what happened shortly after he left Auto Club Speedway’s Victory Lane last weekend.

Larson lives like your typical 24-year-old and has kept a relatively low profile. Most people don’t recognize him, although the days of that happening could be numbered.

2 career NASCAR Cup wins for Kyle Larson

As seven-time Cup champ Jimmie Johnson said, “His days of flying commercial are just about over.”

Larson is flourishing going into his fourth full-time NASCAR Cup season. He posted three consecutive runner-up finishes before taking the checkered flag at Fontana, Calif., last weekend.

He’s the series’ points leader and an early favorite to contend for the championship.

“I see a ton of potential. He is a great talent,” said Johnson, winner of 80 races. “We have all known that he has been highly talented and just waiting for him and the team to get to their winning ways and it looks like they are there.”

Larson couldn’t have scripted a better weekend in his home state a week ago.

The Elk Grove, Calif., native won the Xfinity Series race Saturday, and then took the lead on the final restart of a green-white-checkered finish in the Cup Series on Sunday. He held off proven veterans such as Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. for the win.

Ironically, it all ended with a little fender bender about a quarter-mile from the track. Nobody was injured in it, not even Larson’s ego after the other driver failed to recognize him.

I see a ton of potential. He is a great talent.

Jimmie Johnson on Larson

“I don’t think he did [know who I was],” Larson said, smiling. “But, once the cops showed up, I think he realized who I was. And it was pretty funny.”

Larson is going to become even more recognizable if he keeps going to Victory Lane. It has taken awhile for him to break through.

Larson and his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet team went 98 races before getting their first taste of a Cup victory at Michigan last August. Since then, it’s hard to find a team that has performed better.

Larson has posted a top-five finish in nine of the 17 races since his win in August.

“It’s really cool to be the points leader and having the speed that we’ve had,” Larson said. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”

This Sunday at the STP 500 should provide another telling sign of how far Larson has come in his racing career. Martinsville Speedway is known as a track that doesn’t produce fluke winners, though Larson has dropped any “fluke” label of late.

He is among the top drivers going right now. Larson had a third-place run at this race a year ago, the only time he has cracked the top 10 in his six career races at the famed short track.

“I’ve gotten better at it each time, but it’s still not a track where I’m extremely comfortable,” Larson said. “I can go fast in qualifying or early on tires, but I struggle at saving my stuff. I’ve got to get better at that.

“If we can get a top five or top 10 here, that would be a huge success.”

In the middle of his answer, though, it seemed as though Larson caught himself.

He added: “You never know. Our cars are so good right now, maybe we could contend for a win.”

Nobody would bet against him.

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