For some, Kyle Larson may have taken the NASCAR world by storm last week.
For others, his first career Nationwide Series win and runner-up finish in the Sprint Cup race at California the following day was not much of a surprise at all. Many saw it coming. It was merely the anticipated coming-out party for NASCAR’s next big star.
Or will he take a step back and struggle before breaking through?
Both are possible, and neither would be a huge surprise. Rookies struggle, even the best ones. But Larson, 21, is widely regarded as a special talent — as he showed at California — and could win at any time.
But there’s a bigger question worth considering.
When he does win, will fans embrace him as the sport’s next big star?
They, no doubt, will celebrate his first Cup victory. First-time winners are cool, and NASCAR fans celebrate them just like big upsets in other sports.
But what happens when Larson keeps winning?
Will fans embrace him, or ignore him and cast him aside, as they have done with so many other new stars?
Unless your name is Earnhardt, NASCAR fans aren’t overly accepting of new stars beating the established elite.
Especially young stars from California, like Larson.
In some respects, NASCAR is still a good ol’ boy network. Fans favor veteran drivers and established stars, and they don’t take too kindly to new drivers beating them.
Just ask Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and others on a long list of newcomers who found quick success.
Gordon, from California, was widely reviled when he burst onto the scene in the early ’90s, quickly beating popular stalwarts Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace. It wasn’t until the past few years, as the frequency of his victories declined, that he became a fan favorite.
Johnson, also from California, has been hated since he won his first championship in 2006, maybe even since he won eight races in 2004 or his first race in 2002. He was seen as a Gordon clone and never overcame it.
Harvick, also from California, was never really embraced by Earnhardt fans, despite stepping into Dale Earnhardt’s car at Richard Childress Racing, though that may have been partly because of his volatility and early skirmishes with veteran drivers. The jury is still out on rookie Austin Dillon, who is now driving Earnhardt’s famous No. 3.
Busch and his brother, Kurt, both tenacious and temperamental drivers from Las Vegas, rubbed fans the wrong way early and have been considered two of the sport’s biggest villains throughout their careers.
Even Denny Hamlin, a Virginia native and the last young driver to succeed as a rookie, has not built a large fan following. Neither have Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and a host of other stars to emerge in the past 10 years.
The sport is starving for a new star, one who can capture the attention and passion of a fan base that has been in a deep slumber the past few years. Larson has the talent to do that. Some believe he will be the next Gordon or Johnson.
So how will fans react to Larson when he finally wins and becomes a consistent frontrunner, beating the biggest stars on a regular basis?
What happens when he starts to win races in bunches and contends for championships?
Will fans turn against him like they did Gordon and Johnson?
Or will they make him the exception and embrace him as the next big star?