DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Known for his voracious appetite for racing and an uncanny ability to drive anything, anywhere, any time, Tony Stewart was asked if he had a kindred spirit in Kyle Larson.
“I think he reminds me of a lot better than me,’’ Stewart said of the 20-year-old Nationwide Series rookie driver from Elk Grove, Calif.
“Everything he’s got, I mean, everything [is better].’’
Larson, the reigning K&N Pro Series East champion and Rookie of the Year, hopes to show some of his own uncanny racing ability when he makes his Nationwide debut in the season-opening Drive4COPD 300 next weekend at Daytona International Speedway.
Saturday, Larson took an important step toward that objective when he completed his first superspeedway race, starting 11th and finishing second in the ARCA Series opener at Daytona.
A phenom who was signed as a developmental driver by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, Larson quickly earned a reputation as a pure racer who, like Stewart, loved to jump in a car and drive anything, anywhere, any time.
“It’s been really exciting, especially in 2012 with all the racing I did,’’ said Larson, who also ran four races last season in the Camping World Truck Series for Turner Scott Motorsports, for whom he’ll drive full time in the Nationwide Series this year.
Larson recorded three top-10 finishes in the trucks, with a best finish of second at Phoenix and a best start of second at Homestead, Fla.
“I ended up running 123 races, so I stayed busy, and it definitely was a year I’ll never forget,’’ Larson said.
“Winning the K&N Pro Series championship and running four truck races, I won 30 races in total, so it was definitely my most successful year.
“This year, I’ll be in the Nationwide Series, so I’m looking forward to 2013 and hopefully I can still get some sprint car and midget races in and run close to 100 races.’’
Larson developed his appetite when he started racing karts at age 7 before moving up to World of Outlaws sprint cars and USAC sprint, midget, and Silver Crown cars.
So when he came to Daytona a year ago to launch his career as a stock car driver, he came with a strong open-wheel background. But he gave a tantalizing glimpse of his enormous talent when he won his first career start in a stock car, capturing a late-model feature at New Smyrna Speedway, a nearby short track.
“Even when he got in a stock car the first time, it was just natural to him,’’ Stewart said. “To go from lightweight cars to a heavy car is a hard adjustment for a lot of drivers. It’s a lot easier to go from a heavier car to a lighter car.’’
‘Natural driving ability’
The arc of Larson’s fast-rising career seems to be following that of Stewart, the three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion driver/car owner who started as an open-wheel racer, but made his mark when he jumped to stock cars.
When Larson captured the K&N title and rookie honors last season, he won both on the last lap of the series season finale at Rockingham, N.C. It was just the way Stewart won his third Sprint Cup title in 2011, holding off series runner-up Carl Edwards to win on the last lap of the last race of the season at Homestead, Fla.
“To watch [Larson] run his first couple of races in a stock car, that showed you this kid has natural driving ability,’’ Stewart said. “He’s just good in whatever he gets in.’’
So much so that NASCAR pegged Larson as one of its Next 9, a group of young drivers to watch.
Should he be considered one of the next generation of stars?
“Yeah, you can bet the farm on it,’’ Stewart said. “I guarantee it. If not, you can take everything I own, because I’m that confident.’’
To which car owner Chip Ganassi replied, “Well, I am betting the farm.’’
So, too, is NASCAR, which points to Larson, a Japanese-American with Native American ancestry, as the most celebrated graduate of its Drive for Diversity program. He is the first champion in the program’s nine-year history.
“It is really a confirmation of the strength of the program and the fantastic talent of Kyle Larson,’’ said Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR vice president of public affairs and multicultural development.
“Kyle’s championship in the Pro Series East last year with Revolution Racing was incredibly important to the program and positioned the program as a leading driver development forum in motorsports.’’
Said Larson, “Being with Rev Racing and the whole D4D program was really beneficial, because it got me experience in a stock car. I had never been in a stock car until last year. I got to race on tracks I’ll be running in the Nationwide Series this year, so it gave me a little bit of practice.
“And winning the championship helped me get this Nationwide Series ride with Turner Scott Motorsports.’’
And if Larson were to emerge as the sport’s next generation star?
“It would be fantastic,’’ Jadotte said. “In many ways, he’s straight out of Central Casting.’’
Fresh-faced, forthright, and earnest, Larson appears to have a champion’s mettle.
“He’s an incredibly talented driver,” said Jadotte, “and you’ve heard that not only from Tony Stewart, but Jeff Gordon and others who’ve seen Kyle Larson perform and rave about his talent. He’s had success in every form of motorsports and he certainly hit the ground running in stock cars.
“Kyle Larson has the ability to succeed in whatever form of motorsports you put him in, but we’re excited to have him here in NASCAR.’’
Last September, after winning the K&N Pro Series race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway from the pole, Larson was whisked away to Ohio on Stewart’s private jet to race at the NASCAR star’s dirt track at Eldora Speedway, where two years ago Larson became only the second driver to win the 4-Crown Nationals sprint car, midget, and Silver Crown features.
Last year, however, Larson failed to duplicate his feat.
“I won the midget race, then in the sprint car race I wrecked really hard and ended up in the hospital,’’ Larson said. “So it was an up-and-down day for sure and one I’ll never forget.’’
He has followed a hectic racing schedule that closely resembles Stewart’s, and Larson likely will be the busiest driver at Daytona this year, running in the ARCA Series opener, the Nationwide opener, and the inaugural UNOH Battle at the Beach, which will stage qualifying heats and 150-lap features among NASCAR’s three premier short-track touring series: K&N Pro Series, Whelen Modified Tours, and the Late Model division of the Whelen All-American Series.
Ganassi is supportive of the schedule.
“He flies across the country and gets in an unfamiliar car and he wins races with it,’’ Ganassi said. “I mean, that’s pretty impressive.
“He’s got to make some solid steps now and I’m sure he will, but we’re happy he’s a part of our team and we’re happy to be a part of his.’’
The car owner’s only concern has been reining in the expectations.
“When you’re a car owner, your job is to manage everybody’s expectations,’’ Ganassi said. “We don’t want to get the cart in front of the horse, as they say. Let’s just get him through his first Nationwide race right now.’’
Still, Stewart’s bold prediction did not go unnoticed, especially after it went viral.
“It’s cool to read that stuff on Twitter about what he says about me,’’ said Larson. “Like I said before, I just try not to pay too much attention to it, because I don’t want to get a big head or feel too much pressure.”
But he is not unappreciative.
“It’s cool that he says it,’’ Larson said. “It’s only better for my career that I’ve got guys like Tony Stewart talking about me.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.