The next big thing? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Chip Ganassi is putting Kyle Larson center stage in the Sprint Cup world, and -- with other talented young racers that this sport has chewed up and all but discarded, after being called up to the majors too soon -- the big question is is Larson really ready to deal with what he's about to face.
Larson will take Juan Pablo Montoya's ride. Ganassi declined to renew Montoya's contract after six-plus mediocre seasons.
Larson is an incredible talent at the wheel, yes. Tony Stewart calls him the real deal.
But Joey Logano and Casey Atwood and -- if he were still around -- Jason Leffler could perhaps offer a few words of wisdom.
Ever since Jeff Gordon exploded on the NASCAR scene in 1993, stock car team owners have been beating the bushes for 'the next Jeff Gordon,' a promising young driver who could deliver big.
But just to recall Gordon's first year in this series, he tore up 17 Cup cars.
Learning the ropes in the NASCAR Cup world can be expensive.
And other talented newcomers have discovered, ruefully, that the road to success isn't that easy. Remember newcomer Brad Keselowski versus Carl Edwards, that long-running soap opera of anger, pique and hard crashes. HERE (3:15) , HERE and HERE .
Team owner Chip Ganassi (R) and his newest driver (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Maybe it was a 'use him or lose him' situation, much as Robert Yates faced with Kasey Kahne, when Dodge's Ray Evernham offered Kahne a Cup ride and Ford's Yates declined.
Ganassi keeps Larson in the Chevrolet fold.
Ganassi was somewhat on the defensive Friday afternoon here in making the announcement.
"Certainly we believe that Kyle is the future of the sport. He's a unique talent. Let me be very clear, this was a racing decision. We felt that Kyle was the best short-term and long-term fit for the team and for Target.
"Nothing he has done makes us feel he cannot move to the Sprint Cup Series.
"We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson's growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step. We're sure there will be some growing pains, but we're sure he's ready."
"There are going to be some growing pains, I'm sure," Larson says. "I think I'll learn a lot."
It's certainly been a whirlwind year for Larson. A year ago he was unknown. Then he got to Daytona in February and raised a ruckus in winning a short track race.
Ganassi is a power on the Indy-car tour, but in NASCAR not so much (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Some background to consider: It's been another down season for Ganassi, who hasn't had that many up days in NASCAR lately. Is Ganassi's equipment up to snuff? If Formula 1 star and Indy-car champion Juan Pablo Montoya can't make things happen in these cars, why should more be expected from a 21-year-old newcomer? Montoya is averaging a 19th place finish this season; he's 21st in the standings, and his last tour win was at Watkins Glen in 2010.
"It's a building process," Ganassi says of his cars, which use Hendrick engineering. "I think we made a big step this year. Our cars are a lot better. They seem to run at the front a lot more. We led some races.
"Are we there yet? You're never there, until we can win on a consistent basis and win championships consistently."
One question, perhaps rather audacious: can Larson win a Cup race in 2014?
"Kyle is the kind of driver, when he sees an opportunity in front of him, he takes it," Ganassi says. "If that means it's a win, hey, great.
"(But) there's no pressure for him to win his first year out."
Larson is flashy, that's for sure. Brash, perhaps.
A NASCAR game-changer?
Maybe the sport could use one, a new Jimmie Johnson, a new Tony Stewart....
"To say we're sitting here with a game-changer, that's a bit rambunctious," Ganassi demurs. "We have to see what the guy does."
Larson has a curious background -- his full name is Kyle Miyata Larson, and he's Japanese-American, a product of NASCAR's driver development project, and a noted sprint car racer, in the Tony Stewart mold. He made his first NASCAR Nationwide start just over a year ago, at Kentucky, and he's been full-time Nationwide this season. He made unexpected headlines in the season-opening Daytona Nationwide race when he got caught up in a wild race-ending crash ( ( HERE ). He won his first Truck race this past April at Rockingham. His best Nationwide finishes have been seconds at Bristol and Michigan. And Larson has a sideline schedule of 55 to 60 sprint races....which, considering the death of Jason Leffler and the serious injuries to Stewart, could give Ganassi second thoughts.
Still Ganassi senses Larson is something special.
"My first indication was at Daytona this year," Ganassi says. "He's running the Nationwide race 14th or 12th. I thought 'What the hell is so special about this kid?'
"But at the finish line, he was right there.
"I've seen that five or six, eight times now -- He gives you the impression he's dilly-dallying in the middle of the pack, not paying attention. Always at the end he's where it seems to matter to be."
While Larson has been under contract with Ganassi, he has been 'loaned' to Nationwide team owner Steve Turner, and Ganassi says he'll also run Nationwide for Turner next season.
Larson winning in April at the Rock (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Too much too soon, perhaps?
"We have a young talent here that deserves a shot, and we're giving him his shot," Ganassi says.
"I'd like to prove the people that don't think I'm ready for it wrong," Larson himself says.
"As long as I'm running top-15, I'm happy. I don't know if the fans and media think that's good enough. But I think that's about where I'll set my goals for next year."
Of course listening to Larson it's almost like he doesn't know yet what he doesn't know.
And Ganassi's earlier gamble on a young newcomer -- Jason Leffler -- didn't pan out well, and Leffler essentially got dropped before the year was up.
"I feel I am ready," Larson says. "I feel I can go out there and contend.
"I raced with some Cup guys in Nationwide this year and learned a lot. Raced them hard. Beat some of them.
"I think I can do it.
"These opportunities don't come about very often. You never know when you'll have another shot like this. You have to capitalize on it and do the best you can.
"People a lot younger than me got their start in Cup. I think I'll do okay.
"My Sprint car --- 1400-pound cars with 900-horsepower engines. I'm used to having way too much horsepower. I think it will translate well to the Cup cars."
Ganassi himself doesn't appear worried that he's pushing Larson too fast.
"These younger guys that come along today, they seem to take a lot of these things in stride that we as adults think are big deals," Ganassi says. "These young drivers seem to take it like a fish to water.
"I've heard from everybody: 'It's too soon, too early.'
"Let's take the list of drivers we say 'It's too early,' or 'They came too early,' and let's put a list of guys at tracks all across the country -- Saturday night tracks, dirt tracks -- who never got the opportunity.
"There's an opportunity here. He's a great driver. He's obviously the number one pick.
"Nobody deserves a shot more than he does."
Will Kyle Larson find fame and success on the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour? Well, he'll certainly be center stage (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)