Kyle Larson is expected to be named the new driver of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car during a news conference Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Larson would be elevated to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series and race with future Hall of Famers such as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who have been singing his praises for months.
Stewart has said he’d bet the farm Larson would be NASCAR’s next big star. “(He) reminds me of a lot better me,” he said.
Gordon has called him “unreal” and said, “I wish we had five or six more of him.”.
But is the 21-year-old ready for the big leagues? Though he might very well have the potential and talent to be one of NASCAR’s greats himself someday, it seems awfully hasty to promote him to prime time.
“I know I need to be a lot better,” Larson told USA TODAY Sports in April when asked about racing in Cup someday. “I have a lot of confidence in myself, but I’m nowhere near as good as Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne. I think over time I hopefully can be.”.
That time is not now, though team owner Chip Ganassi likely disagrees.
The best way for Larson to get prepared for a long Cup career would be to spend another year in the Nationwide Series, learning what it takes to close out races and get more experience with his team. Otherwise, if he starts racing in Cup and doesn’t get the results, there’s a chance his growth could be stunted. The rosters of NASCAR’s back-marker teams are full of drivers who had their shot in a good ride and didn’t produce — often because they weren’t ready.
Joey Logano, the most recent driver with big hype to be rushed from Nationwide to Cup, has said he was not ready for the move. Only now, five years into his Cup career and after changing teams, is Logano contending for a Chase spot.
“Kyle is an amazing talent that will make it someday. But at the same time I always tell people not to rush it, because sometimes it isn’t quite worth it,” Logano said this month.
Experience, not talent, is what Larson lacks. He drove a stock car for the first time in 2012. This year, his first full-time season in one of NASCAR’s top series, Larson is eighth in the Nationwide standings with no wins. He has two podium finishes in 23 starts. And it’s a lot easier to get results in Nationwide than in Cup.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Won the Nationwide championship two years ago but opted to run another year in the series before moving up. He then won six races and another championship, but he has yet to finish in the top 10 during his rookie Cup season.
“You can have a good car in Nationwide and run top-five or you can have a great car and win,” Stenhouse said recently. “You can have a great car in the Sprint Cup Series and run 15th with it. It’s super competitive.”.
Larson has shown a natural ability to adapt quickly to anything he drives. The quiet, mild-mannered Californian has won dozens of open-wheel dirt races, won a Camping World Truck Series race in just his fifth start and has been fast overall in the Nationwide Series for a rookie.
But circumstances seem to be accelerating his move. Ganassi decided not to bring back Juan Pablo Montoya for an eighth season after the former Indy 500 champion and Formula 1 driver made the Chase just once and failed to win an oval race since joining the Cup Series in 2007.
Maybe sponsor Target is pushing for Larson to be in the car sooner, but hiring a veteran driver to hold the seat for a year might be wiser.
Ganassi likely will point to drivers such as Denny Hamlin (no Nationwide wins before being hired for Cup) and Jimmie Johnson (one Nationwide win) as proof a driver doesn’t need to succeed in the lower-tier series to be good at the top level.
Only time will tell if he’s right.
“If Kyle Larson wants to go to Cup next year, that’s tough to do,” Johnson said. “He’s going to need the whole (practice) session to get where he needs to (in learning the track), and then you’re five or six adjustments behind the fast guys.
“That’s when the Nationwide Series is so good. You can learn the tracks and understand things there.”.
Busch, who joined the Cup Series full time at 19, said times had changed along with the cars since he was promoted.
“I’d like to see more top-fives, more challenging for wins (by Larson before he moves up to Cup),” he said.
There’s no question Larson can be successful. But by rushing him up the ranks before he has enough experience, Ganassi is taking a perilous risk with a promising young career.
Follow Jeff Gluck on Twitter @jeff_gluck.