Young Drivers Face Steep Challenges

Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon

Kyle Larson (32) and Austin Dillon could duel next season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, but veterans warn that no matter how prepared the youngsters are they will face some steep challenges. (Photo: Getty Images)

Even though he won two races during his Sprint Cup rookie season, Kyle Busch admits he “probably wasn’t ready’’ to move to NASCAR’s top series in 2005.

Knowing when to move a young driver to Cup can be challenging for teams. Some drivers need more time in a lower series, some less. Those who succeed in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series can struggle in Cup. Those who struggle in the lower series sometimes excel in Cup.

With about six months until next year’s Daytona 500, decisions on moving young drivers to Cup will need to be made soon.

Next year’s rookie class likely will include two young drivers. Austin Dillon, 23, is expected to move to Cup next season for Richard Childress Racing, and 21-year-old Kyle Larson could replace Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. EGR officials have not announced who will replace Montoya next year.

Larson and Dillon provide contrasting backgrounds.

Larson is in his first season in Nationwide and has run only six Truck races, yet has earned rousing accolades from numerous drivers, including Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. Friday night’s Nationwide race at Bristol Motor Speedway will be Larson’s 23rd series start - four more than Joey Logano had when he moved to Cup in 2009.

Dillon is in his second full season in the Nationwide Series and is fourth in the point standings. He’ll make his 67th Nationwide start Friday. The former Truck champion also has 53 starts in that series and filled in for the injured Stewart in last weekend’s Cup race at Michigan.

Busch ran 41 Nationwide and seven Truck races before he moved to Cup in 2005. He’s not sure if there is a proper number of starts to prepare for Cup.

“I don't think you're ever really ready to make the jump from Truck or Nationwide to Cup,’’ Busch said. “I think the jump is so large. The competition is so stiff. Your car has to be so good and you've got to be able to communicate with your team - a lot more in particular than you do say in the other series.’’

Busch says he looks beyond starts to decide if a driver should move to Cup.

“You need to be winning,’’ he said. “Is Larson ready for it? I'd like to see him (have) more top-fives, challenging for wins like he was at Bristol earlier this year. In a couple of other places, he's been real close. You can throw a guy like that in a Cup car and he could be another Jimmie Johnson - doesn't win very much or if ever in Nationwide, but then goes and wins 60-something Cup races."

Johnson is an anomaly to the belief that success in Nationwide or Trucks portends Cup success. Johnson won one Nationwide race and had only 16 top-10 finishes in 72 races before moving joining Hendrick Motorsports in Cup. The points leader has never missed a Chase in 10 seasons, winning five crowns. He says it helped not staying in Nationwide too long.

“There is great benefit in being in the series to learn the tracks and kind of learn the basics and fundamentals of adjustments on the car,’’ Johnson said. “But I think you can get trapped in those cars too long and develop habits that don’t work in the Cup series. The Cup cars have so much more power. And you have to drive them so differently that I think it can do some damage if you stayed too long in the Nationwide Series.’’

Johnson says he thinks that Larson’s background racing sprint cars will help him adapt more easily when Larson moves to Cup.

Handling the car is one thing, handling a team is another. Young drivers will work with crew members old enough to be their father. That can be intimidating. Logano has said he struggled early in his Cup career with leading his team. Yet, that is a key role for a driver.

“The attitude of your team starts with your driver,’’ said rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won back-to-back Nationwide titles before moving to Cup. “If you don't have a positive attitude, your team's not going to have a positive attitude.’’

It’s a lesson fellow rookie Danica Patrick learned this season. She admits it has not been easy setting modest goals.

“It’s always difficult as a driver to say the words like my goal is top 20,’‘ Patrick said. “I think coming off of last year I expected to do a little bit better. I let things get me frustrated, and I let my spot on the track kind of take me out of my game a little bit.’’

That is just among the challenges Dillon, Larson and others likely will face when they move to Cup.

 

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