Larson Making the Move to Cup
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 30, 2013 | 2:32 P.M. EST
"There are going to be some growing pains, I’m sure. I’ll grow as a driver and mature as a person." (Photo: Getty Images)
HAMPTON, Ga. - We will see if Chip Ganassi’s decision to hire 21-year-old NASCAR neophyte Kyle Larson is a stunning success, complete failure or something in between.
Doubters note the precautionary tales of Casey Atwood, Joey Logano and Reed Sorenson - young phenoms who struggled early in their careers or washed out as Atwood did. Supporters heed the praise former champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have heaped on Larson and say, as Ganassi did Friday, that Larson is “the future of the sport.’’
The debate will continue as Larson replaces Juan Pablo Montoya next season at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Expect to see Larson, who has no Sprint Cup experience, run some Cup races this season with the team Harry Scott recently purchased from James Finch.
Ganassi understands the questions about pushing Larson so quickly to Cup. He’s witnessed the struggles of Sorenson and Casey Mears, who had limited stock-car experience before moving to Cup, when they were with Ganassi’s team.
There are times, though, that one takes the chance. While Ganassi tried to manage expectations about Larson in Friday’s announcement, it’s clear he likes what he sees.
“I’ve heard from everybody, geez, it’s too soon, maybe it’s too early,’’ Ganassi said. “Let’s take a list drivers that we say ... came too early. On the right side, let’s put the list of all the guys around the country ... that never got the opportunity. How long is that list? There’s an opportunity here and he’s a great driver. He’s obviously the No. 1 pick, said by many other people besides myself. Nobody deserves a shot more than he does.’’
Larson gets the ride with a resume that features only 23 Nationwide races heading into this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and six Camping World Truck Series races. His first stock-car start came in Feb. 2012.
Numerous drivers praise Larson’s ability despite his limited stock-car experience. Still, is the move is too soon? Some argue that one should move a driver quickly through the ranks so they don’t develop bad habits. Others note that experience in other series makes for a better driver. Protagonist on both sides can point to drivers that fulfill their arguments.
There are bigger issues, though.
This might be the right time for Larson because of where Ganassi’s team is. Two years ago, the team had four top-five finishes between Jamie McMurray and Montoya. Last year, they combined for none. That’s unacceptable.
Ganassi has made major personnel changes in the last couple of years, replacing team managers, crew chiefs and others. The team also switched engine suppliers to receive Hendrick engines. There’s progress. The team has five top-five finishes so far this season, but don’t believe this team is ready to challenge Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing for supremacy in the sport.
Another key is that the team will have McMurray back. Ganassi noted that the team “just redid Jamie’s contract.’’ It likely will be on McMurray’s shoulders to help the team improve its program as Larson gains experience and understands the Cup cars. As long as McMurray can provide the direction, this team should continue to move forward.
“I think we made a big step this past year,’’ Ganassi said. “Our cars are a lot better. They seem to run at the front a lot more. Having the right driver certainly doesn’t hurt.’’
If this happens in the right manner, Larson will be able to grow. That doesn’t mean he won’t fail at times. All rookies struggle in some ways, even ones who win in Cup.
“I think I can do OK,’’ Larson said. “There are going to be some growing pains, I’m sure. I’ll grow as a driver and mature as a person.’’
Will that be a winning driver? Ganassi was asked if he was counting on Larson winning Cup races next year.
“Kyle is the kind of driver that when he sees opportunity in front of him, he takes it,’’ Ganassi said. “If that means it’s a win, hey, great. There’s no pressure for him to win his first year out. The kid has done very well in every step he’s made in his career so far. I see no reason why this should be any different.’’
Ganassi hesitates to label Larson with superlatives others have.
“To say that we’re sitting here today with a game-changer is a little rambunctious,’’ Ganassi said. “We’ve got to see what the guy does.’’
Yes, let’s see what Larson can do. Maybe he’ll be the next Jimmie Johnson. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll just be Kyle Larson. The question is if that will be good enough.