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Larson’s Expectations At Martinsville – ESPN
Last August, I thought owner Chip Ganassi was heavy on hyperbole when he uttered these words upon confirming he would move Kyle Larson up to Cup in 2014: “Certainly we believe Kyle is the future of the sport.”
The future? That seemed a bit much. Now I wonder. Now we all should, after this weekend at Fontana, when Larson came out of nowhere twice, to win on Saturday and narrowly lose on Sunday.
Now I look again at NASCAR’s 2014 Sprint Cup media guide, issued before the season started, and behold the eeriness. On the opening page of the section marked “Drivers,” where you find their biographies and records, there is a picture of a single driver, without comment, without naming him.
It’s Kyle Larson.
Kyle Larson. Age 21. Rookie. With a so-so team. A portrait … of the future.
That’s prescience, proved already, as Larson hurtles into NASCAR Nation’s awareness.
In that photo, he sits in a car with the steering wheel removed — all the more prescient, considering that he did his victory doughnuts after winning the Nationwide race Saturday with his steering wheel detached, waving it out the window while spinning back and forth using only the throttle to steer the car.
Years ago, riding with Dale Earnhardt in passenger cars and pickups, I sometimes saw him control them just a little bit with the throttle more than the wheel. But not like Larson does it.
Larson comes off dirt, out of sprint cars, the best preparation there is for drivers on oval tracks. You learn to be comfortable sideways. Even when you look out of control, you’re in control. Gordon and Tony Stewart prepped that way. But Larson brings an uncanny level of car control that Gordon and Stewart haven’t displayed in NASCAR.
I used to write that Earnhardt in his prime could make a 3,400-pound car behave like a part of him, like an arm or a leg, make it move like a ballerina, stalk like a panther, strike like a water moccasin.
But you always knew where Earnhardt was. Larson does these things out of nowhere. And that is reminiscent of the best NASCAR driver there has ever been: David Pearson.
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Pearson lurked, to the point you almost forgot he was in a race, then struck when he sensed it was time to go. He won 105 races, rarely running a full schedule.
Eerily, beautifully, Larson doesn’t even know how he emerges from nowhere. How did he go from ninth to second in barely more than a lap Sunday, and fall just short of Kyle Busch for the win?
“I don’t know. It’s on TV somewhere,” he told reporters at the track, meaning he and they would have to look at the video to figure it out.
His moves are so fast, so reflexive, that his memory can’t record them.
On Saturday, “I was surprised we got the lead,” he said after taking it from Kevin Harvick on the final restart, then holding off dive after dive from Harvick and Kyle Busch, riding his sprint car instincts, up high, letting his momentum carry him to retake the lead and retake it again.
“He’s great,” Busch said after the Saturday race. “That’s why he’s here … that’s why he’s in Cup.”
Sure enough, next day in Cup, Larson came out of nowhere at the end to become Busch’s last challenger for the win.
Coming out of nowhere was what caught Ganassi’s eye in the first place, at Daytona in the notorious season-opening Nationwide race of 2013. It wasn’t when Larson’s car was torn in half and his engine went into the grandstands near the flag stand. It was what Larson did in the moments before, to get into position to go all out for the win.
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“I remember watching him in the race, hearing all the time ‘how special he is, how special he is,'” Ganassi recalled, “and he’s running around … 14th, or 12th, and I thought, ‘What the hell is so special about this kid?’
“Sure enough, at the finish line, he was right there — of course he [at least his car] was here and there at the finish line. … Be that as it may, that to me was special.”
Often, “He gives you the impression he’s dillydallying in the middle of the pack, not paying attention,” Ganassi said. “Always at the end, he’s where it seems to matter to be.”
You just don’t come out of nowhere at little Martinsville Speedway, the next stop on the Cup tour, for Sunday’s STP 500. It’s NASCAR’s smallest track, and it ranks alongside Darlington as the most difficult to adapt to. It’s maddening for a newcomer. The traffic is too jammed, too often, in what is more NASCAR’s answer to a carnival bumper-car ride than a race.
All Larson wants Sunday, he said on an ESPN.com live chat Tuesday, is to “stay out of trouble and stay on the lead lap.”
But that’s typical Larson understatement and humility. He has raced there but once, and briefly, last fall, falling out early with a blown engine in a subpar car.
So if he shouldn’t flash out of nowhere at the end, that wouldn’t tell you much about his future, and NASCAR’s future.
But if he should, that would tell you everything.
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