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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Kyle Larson leads NASCAR's new generation

by Gordon Kirby
As NASCAR's greatest modern stars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. leave the stage American stock car racing's future is in the hands of a brace of talented young drivers led by Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. At Michigan two months ago the message was made clear that the future is today as Larson and Elliott dueled for victory.

At 21, Elliott is in his rookie Cup season aboard Hendrick Motorsports' #24 replacing the retired Jeff Gordon. He's shown tremendous talent on his rapid rise up stock car racing's ladder and has proved himself equal to the task of replacing Gordon by taking poles and leading races.

Larson is three years older and has been racing Cup cars for Chip Ganassi's team since 2013, replacing Juan-Pablo Montoya in 2014 and quickly demonstrating a rare ability to run the high groove on banked tracks up close to the wall in the style of Richard Petty and Bill Elliott. Larson has also shown tremendous skill in midgets, sprint cars and all types of dirt track machinery.

"Meeting Chip in 2011 was huge for my career," Larson grins. "I've been with him ever since. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am today."

© Nigel Kinrade Photography
Since getting his big chance with Ganassi, Larson has been a contender to win more than a few Cup races. At Michigan in August he drove perfectly, getting the jump on Elliott in the race's final restart and pulling away to score his first win in style.

"I think I've become a little bit smarter racer since I started racing stock cars," Larson said. "At Michigan, our car was really good. We probably had the best car and when you have the best car it makes it easier. We've come close a lot of times before but the more experience you get, the more relaxed you become. You make less mistakes and at Michigan we didn't make any mistakes in the second half of the race and that enabled us to win."

This year didn't start the way Larson and Ganassi hoped and it took some reshuffling to get the team working in better order. Among the changes Chad Johnston was hired from Stewart-Haas to take over from Chris Heroy as crew chief. Larson says he couldn't be happier with the results.

"We didn't start the year off good and that made both Jamie (McMurray)'s team and the #42 team work hard," Larson says. "We made a lot of personnel changes throughout the year and brought some new people into the team and all that work seems to be paying off, which is good. When you make changes in people, it's hard to know if it's going to work or not. Some of the changes were questionable, but it's all starting to work out.

"The short, flat tracks are where I've struggled through my whole stock car career. But we're running better on those tracks. Our cars have gotten better on the short, flat tracks and I've gotten better. I've done a lot of work to get better on those tracks and our best finishes have come this year on our worst tracks."

By winning at Michigan two months ago Larson qualified for this year's Chase but various troubles at each of Chicago, New Hampshire and Dover resulted in early elimination.

"At Chicago we had some trouble at the end of the race and we turned what could have been a top seven finish into an eighteenth and we didn't do any better at New Hampshire or Dover. So that hurt, but we have the speed in our cars to get the job done. Not having more bad luck come our way is a key to the rest of our year."

ith Ganassi's generous permission, Larson continues to enjoy as much dirt track racing as possible.

I've run eighteen or nineteen other races this year, starting in January. That's about all I can do without flying to other races on NASCAR race weekends, which Chip doesn't allow me to do and that's fine. I don't have any problem at all with that. I appreciate him letting me run on the dirt. He knows how much I enjoy it.

© Nigel Kinrade Photography
"Chip is awesome. He was a racer himself and he understands what it takes to be a driver and what it takes to make a great team. He has great people in this team and he knows how to find the right people who can work together well. And he allows me to run the dirt races, which is taking a chance."

During NASCAR's brief off-season Kyle will fly down-under to run some midget and sprint car races.

"I'm going to do the Turkey Night race in November and then I'm going to Australia in January. I went there in 2012 and I went to New Zealand in 2011 and '12. New Zealand is big for midget racing and Australia is big for sprint cars."

Larson has also enjoyed further expanding his horizons by driving one of Ganassi's Daytona Prototypes in the Daytona 24 Hours. He won the race last year, co-driving with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Jamie McMurray.

"The last four years I've done the Rolex 24 hour race at Daytona," Kyle relates. "I struggled my first year and didn't really enjoy my time doing it, but I got to be a lot better in the second year. I got more time in the car and we ended up winning the race last year. I don't know if I'm going to do it this winter because they got rid of the prototype cars and they're running the Ford GT cars. So I'm not sure they need any more drivers for Daytona."

Scott Dixon has competed in the Daytona 24 hours with Ganassi's team for the past thirteen years and won the long-distance grind in 2006 and 2015. Dixon made an interesting observation about co-driving with Larson.

"Doing the Daytona 24 hours is always a good team-building exercise because you're working with your counterparts from sports cars and NASCAR," Dixon remarked. "There's always something to learn there. Kyle Larson does some strange things that are pretty interesting and you have to try it. Kyle isn't really a road racer, but he's damned good! He has pure talent that it's pretty exciting to see."

I asked Larson if Ganassi's two-car NASCAR team can regularly race with and beat the giant four-car operations from the likes of Hendrick, Joe Gibbs and Stewart-Haas.

"I think a two-car team is good," he replied. "When you get three or four car teams you take the focus off each other and start worrying about yourself. Jamie and I work together almost as one. We work together a lot and I think that's very important for a race team.

© Nigel Kinrade Photography
"You look at Hendrick and the #48 and the #88 work out of their own shop as one team and the #24 and the #5 work separately from their shop. The Stewart/Haas team works as four cars on their own. The two Penske cars work together as a team but the Gibbs guys are probably doing the best job of four cars working together. They're doing a really good job and will be hard to beat this year."

Larson believes if nothing else he has a chance to win the season finale at Homestead.

"I feel we've got the speed at Homestead to have a shot at it," he declares. "Homestead is one of my favorite tracks. I think everybody in the field knows that Homestead is my best track. We'll probably be an underdog to the media, but our competitors might have a different opinion."

Kyle Larson has arrived as one of the NASCAR's great new stars. Over the next ten years talented young racers like Larson, Elliott, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Cole Custer will bear a big part of the burden of reviving NASCAR's fading fortunes. Larson and his competitors have shown they're up to the job. It's down to NASCAR to find the right way forward for this exciting new generation.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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