Big Weekend for Larson
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on March 24, 2014 | 12:00 P.M. EST
Larson came close to sweeping the weekend at Auto Club Speedway. (Photo: Getty Images)
He went to the West Coast. Saw friends. Took a couple of car trips.
One ended in Victory Lane. The other nearly the same place.
OK, so maybe he’s not much for sightseeing, but, hey, he’s 21 years old and got so much in front of him. And this weekend he had so many cars behind him, winning the NASCAR Nationwide race and finishing second in the Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.
This was the type of performance many awaited - even expected - even though he didn’t start racing stock cars until 2012. It was why Chip Ganassi Racing made room for him in the Cup series, allowing Juan Pablo Montoya to move on after last season.
Many were introduced to Larson’s talent a year ago when he nearly beat Kyle Busch, the all-time Nationwide wins leader, at Bristol. That it came in Larson’s fourth series start made the feat seem remarkable, but to those who had seen Larson run sprint cars, it wasn’t a big surprise.
Although not every great sprint car driver succeeds in stock cars, there seemed little doubt that Larson would excel. The car control, ability to adopt to changing conditions and calm demeanor were more than most youngsters showed. The key was managing expectations with Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and others praising Larson’s talent last year.
While Larson learned about stock cars, racing longer distances and the tracks, he also taught his competitors lessons. His tight-wire act along the high line in the Charlotte Nationwide race last fall had drivers and spotters buzzing. It had been years since someone could run so fast in that line.
Busch admits Larson “taught’’ him that the high groove would work that race. Busch used it to take the lead and win. Larson used a similar type of line in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to lead the most laps before finishing second there.
This weekend, Larson show that his inexperience is not an excuse. He fended the challenges from Busch and Kevin Harvick in the final 15 laps. At times Busch or Harvick moved alongside Larson but neither could take the lead for good.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted after the race: “No doubt Larson wins on the cup side this year. He’s (darn) good and surrounded by solid improving team.’’
Larson admitted afterward that what meant the most to him was not that he won his first series race but who he beat to achieve that.
About 24 hours later, Larson and Busch were in reserve roles. Yet, it didn’t seem it would be that way on the final restart.
Larson, who had rebounded from a pit road speeding penalty earlier in the race, restarted ninth. Busch fifth.
Larson dived low but several cars moved to the bottom groove, opening the middle for Larson. He took it. Larson was fifth by Turn 2. He cut all the way to the grass in Turn 3. Larson held on and moved past Paul Menard for fourth.
On the final lap, Larson dived low in Turn 1, running along the white line and shot up the track off Turn 2 into second place behind Busch.
“It went through my mind ‘I might sweep the weekend here,’ ‘’ Larson said.
He dived low in Turn 3 near the grass but Busch took the line and stalled Larson’s momentum.
“What a shoe that kid is,’’ Busch said.
“It's no surprise Larson is good. He gets the experience there of racing against us, racing against me, Kevin (Harvick), racing against guys like Matt Kenseth, whoever else the Cup guys are that race Nationwide. Once he got here he was more ready, and he ran some races last year, got his feet wet, got a taste of it, and then this year him and his crew chief have gone to work and they've communicated well, done a good job.’’
Now, the Cup series heads to Martinsville Speedway. Larson finished 42nd there last fall after engine problems. The tight track has a way of bringing rookies back to reality. Maybe it will strike Larson again this week. Even if does, it likely won’t be long before he figures the track and succeeds.
With what he’s already done, one almost expects him to make his next Sunday drive entertaining.