Saturday, February 17, 2018
Sports

Larson label: Next big star

DAYTONA BEACH — Kyle Larson just may be the next great NASCAR driver.

Scratch that.

Make it, "will be" the next star in the sport's top series. Says who? Just ask Tony Stewart.

"I guarantee it," Stewart said. "If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident."

That's a bold prediction from a three-time Cup champion not known for hyperbole.

Stewart, though, has every reason to be impressed. So are many of NASCAR's elite drivers, from Jeff Gordon to Kasey Kahne, who are wowed by the speed, talent and versatility of Larson, 20. New cars, new series, new tracks — none of it has slowed Larson from the fast track to stardom.

He won a low-level NASCAR developmental series title last season, the first time he raced in stock cars, and had three top-10s in his four truck series starts.

He raced all over the world in any series where he could find a ride. Larson counted 92 races in 2011 and 123 in 2012.

"The past two years have been pretty crazy," he said. "I've been running different cars, it seems, every night. I kept busy. I had a lot of fun, won a lot of races."

Larson takes the next step in Saturday's Nationwide series race at Daytona International Speedway, and finished second in last week's ARCA race. Add two short-track events at the "Battle at the Beach" — including Monday, when he won after spinning out the leader on the final lap — and he's one of the busiest drivers of Speedweeks.

He even found time Sunday night to win a USAC midget race at New Smyrna Speedway.

Larson leads a new generation ready to shake up NASCAR. Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr., and Dylan Kwasniewski are just a few of the prospects set to take over as today's crop of 40-something Cup drivers inch closer toward retirement.

It's more than just young blood, but different bloodlines. Wallace will drive trucks as the fourth full-time black driver in NASCAR history. Larson's mother is Japanese and his father is of Native American descent.

Larson needs a crash course in Japanese — "All I say is, Sayonara," he said, laughing — but he's serious about sparking interest in racing in new cultures.

Larson, in a development contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, was the first champion out of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. He wants to pattern his career after drivers like Stewart and Kahne, who started on dirt tracks in open-wheel cars.

"I'd like to run the Indy 500 someday, for sure," he said. "I think being with Chip Ganassi Racing, you have that chance. I'd also like to run the 24-hour race at Daytona. Being with Chip Ganassi, you get those options if you're doing well and he likes you."

What's not to like?

Gordon went on TV last year and said, "he makes me look like nothing," at his age. The four-time Cup champion become a friend of Larson's and texts him after every win.

That's a lot of texts.

Speedweeks schedule

Thursday

9 a.m. NASCAR Nationwide practice

10:15 Nationwide practice

12:10 p.m. NASCAR truck practice

2 Sprint Cup Budweiser Duel 150s (two races, 60 laps and 150 miles each), TV: Speed

Friday

11 a.m. Daytona 500 practice

12:30 p.m. Daytona 500 practice

1:40 NASCAR truck qualifying (two laps, all positions)

3:35 NASCAR Nationwide qualifying (two laps, all positions)

7:30 NASCAR trucks NextEra Energy Resources 250 (100 laps, 250 miles) TV: Speed Channel

Saturday

10:30 a.m. Final Daytona 500 practice

1:15 p.m. NASCAR Nationwide DRIVE4COPD 300 (120 laps, 300 miles) TV: ESPN

Sunday

1 Sprint Cup Daytona 500 (200 laps, 500 miles) TV: Ch. 13

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