For the first time in years, the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season boasts a compelling rookie class. At this posting, five have announced as candidates for Rookie Of The Year. Nationwide Series veterans Michael Annett, Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt join the much-ballyhooed likes of Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon as candidates, perhaps the most intriguing class since 2006, which featured phenoms Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer.
Expectations are justifiably high for Dillon. He captured the Camping World Truck Series title in 2011, and in the just-concluded 2013 campaign won the Nationwide Series title. With 13 Cup races to his credit, Dillon won’t exactly need a beginner’s manual for his ride. Having Pop-pop in your corner, and a lifetime of exposure to NASCAR, Dillon figures to come in more clear-eyed than most.
Larson is another story. To be sure, his resume to date is pretty impressive. Whether its USAC, World of Outlaws or the go karts he raced as a youngster, the Sacramento, California native has been a success wherever he’s driven. What he doesn’t possess is a deep stock car resume. Between this and his relative youth at age 21, there are those questioning Larson’s readiness for the big show.
Yes, NASCAR lore is filled with cautionary tales. Casey Atwood never panned out. Joey Logano hit a few pot holes on his road to relevance. Brad Coleman, Stephen Leicht, and Andy Houston dot the list of other young drivers whose careers stalled out before they really even started.
Kyle Larson isn’t that driver. A closer examination suggests the kid is alright.
The results thus far reveal Larson is a quick study. In the truck series, the driver of Asian-American descent owns a win and five top tens in six starts. Last season, Larson was Rookie Of The Year in the Nationwide Series with nine top fives and 17 top tens, and an average finish of 13.8, all while finishing eighth in the final standings driving for Turner Scott Motorsports. Put the phenom in JGR equipment, and we might be talking about a championship contender. This doesn’t even address Larson’s prowess in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East competition, where he was 2012 champion.
More than anything, succeeding in NASCAR is about confidence. You’ve got to approach racing in the Cup Series like you know you belong there. That confidence gets you through the growing pains such as Larson experienced in his season opening wreck at Daytona. An incident like that sets a lot of people back. Kyle made it through. The kid’s not a braggart or a trash talker, but there’s a certain underlying swagger that says “I’ve got this.” He’s taking the words of doubters as a challenge to prove them wrong.
He has that confidence, and yet you see no sense of entitlement, and there’s an understanding there’s an acquired knowledge of saving the tires and knowing the right moment to make your move. Larson’s not making outrageous predictions, and knows this takes time.
Remember. it wasn’t any old Joe who hired Larson. Chip Ganassi is about as knowledgeable as they come. You think he might know something we don’t? What do you think? Just keeping tabs on his progress alongside Dillon in particular will be fun to watch. Is he the next Jeff Gordon? No- he’s the first Kyle Larson.