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.Continued...