Will phenom Kyle Larson take the Sprint Cup Series by storm in his rookie season in 2014?

Kyle Larson ready to show he has what it takes in Sprint Cup in 2014

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – When you have incredible talent, some things are just foregone conclusions. But no matter what Kyle Larson accomplishes in his rookie Sprint Cup season with Chip Ganassi Racing, he’ll still likely go down in NASCAR history as having the shortest job interview and hiring process.

“If you know Chip, he’s really quick about what he says,” Larson said with a laugh, recalling the day Ganassi called and changed the young driver’s life.

“The phone call lasted probably 45 seconds. I was just driving down the road, I kind of maybe knew what the phone call was going to be about, so I pulled over and he said, ‘Hey, it’s Chip. Yo! Ready to drive the 42 next year?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘Okay, anything else?’ Click. That’s how it went.”

As the replacement for Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, Larson will definitely have a proverbial target on his back that is more than just representing his team’s primary sponsor.

There’s his age (21), his relatively short apprenticeship in the Nationwide Series (one season) and a reputation of being perhaps one of the most talented drivers to come up through the short track, sprint car and midget ranks in the last decade-plus.

But it’s hard to ignore the confidence Ganassi and Sabates have in Larson, not to mention the respect he’s already gained from several of his Sprint Cup peers and heroes.

“I am blown away by this kid,” Gordon said of Larson in a TV interview a little over a year ago. “He makes me look like nothing. He’s maybe a little more closer to Tony Stewart, who drove a lot more cars over the years than I have. I have Kyle’s number. I text him when he wins a race. I’m getting tired of texting him. The kid will win two different divisions in the same weekend. The kid is really spectacular. I think he’s probably the rawest, most talented race car driver I know of.”

In an interview with AutoWeek magazine last year, Tony Stewart said of Larson, “That kid is a lot better than (Jeff) Gordon or I was at his age,” Stewart said. “You’re going to be hearing about him for a long time. He’s a special talent.”

Larson was the talk of the morning session Tuesday in the second day of the four-day annual NASCAR Media Tour. He’s one of eight contenders for Rookie of the Year in the Sprint Cup Series, but it would not be a stretch to consider him the favorite already.

“The kid’s ready,” Ganassi said last August when he announced he had signed Larson to replace Montoya, who has moved back to the IndyCar Series this year after a seven-year run in NASCAR.

Ganassi was not able to attend Tuesday’s media session due to other commitments, but team co-owner Felix Sabates was there and readily admitted Larson will be a game-changer for both the race team but also for NASCAR.

To illustrate that, Sabates admitted he’s cut back on his travel schedule to races in recent years, but plans on ratcheting that up considerably to about 28 races on the 36-race Sprint Cup schedule so that he can watch Larson race – and ultimately win.

“I want to be there when Kyle wins for the first time,” Sabates said. “He didn’t just come out of the closet yesterday. I’ve been following him for awhile. When he was 17 years old, I said he’s the real McCoy. Very seldom do you get someone that age, that mature, in a race car. When he hit the wall at Daytona and went airborne, I thought that was it, put a fork in him, he’s done. And then the next week, he was (back) out there, going sideways.”

For such a young man, Larson is a seasoned driver. He’s spent the last several years racing primarily sprint cars and midgets on short tracks around the country, winning dozens of races. He captured the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship in 2012, winning two races and finishing in the top 10 12 times in 14 starts.

In just two Camping World Truck Series events last season, he won one and finished runner-up in the other. And then in his first full-time campaign on the Nationwide Series, Larson made 33 starts and, while he failed to win a race, finished runner-up four times, had 17 top-10 finishes and wound up an outstanding eighth in the final standings.

While Larson was involved in a massive pileup in the season-opening race at Daytona last year, where his car essentially disintegrated around him and with parts including a tire that flew into the crowd and injured two dozen fans, he amazingly was unhurt in the wreck. It was one of the most vicious crashes in NASCAR in recent memory.

“Having a background in sprint cars, wrecks like that happen – not all the time, but enough to where you’re not surprised when it happens,” Larson said. “It didn’t affect me mentally at all, I was just more worried about the fans and stuff. I was supposed to run a race that night, but I decided not to.

“It wasn’t because I was scared about racing, it was more out of respect for the fans. It probably wasn’t even in the top five of my worst wrecks. On video, it looks real bad, but as far as being injured or sore, it wasn’t bad at all. As a race car driver, you can’t be scared, and I tried to put things behind me pretty quick. So, I don’t think about it a whole lot.”

To his credit, Larson appears rather level-headed. While he smiles and says Jeff Gordon is his idol and that he at some point collected autographs of all his favorite drivers, he’s not letting the magnitude of his ascension to Sprint Cup to leave him awestruck. He knows he has a job and plans on going out and doing it.

“It’s exciting, but I don’t think about that stuff a whole lot,” he said. “When we’re strapped into the cars, we’re all just race car drivers. It’s just not that big of a deal to me. They’re just other race car drivers. I mean, when they come up to me, they’re probably not like, ‘Wow, that’s Kyle Larson.’ Like I said, they’re just other race car drivers I’m out there competing with.”

Ganassi and Sabates have both said they want to bring Larson along slowly, but his youthful expectations are more elevated than his bosses.

“Chip and Felix are both realistic with their goals as well as me, and theirs might be lower than mine,” Larson said. “But mine are just to be competitive each week and finish in the top 12 or 15 of the race, win Rookie of the Year and make the Chase.

“I don’t think anything could have worked out better for me. I couldn’t have caught any better break. I’m just really thankful and really to do the best job I can.”

Gateway secures deal with Bommarito Auto for IndyCar race sponsorship

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 9:  Bryan Herta drives his #27 Andretti Green Racing Honda Dallara during practice for the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson 250 at the Gateway International Raceway on August 9, 2003 in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park’s return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule will feature a two-year title sponsorship from Bommarito Automotive Group, it was confirmed on Thursday. The St. Louis Business Journal was first to report the news.

The largest auto dealer in St. Louis will see its name on the race, now titled the Bommarito Automotive Group 500. Gateway’s return comes on August 26 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), for its first IndyCar race since 2003.

“We are pleased to announce that Bommarito Automotive Group will join Gateway Motorsports Park in the production of our inaugural INDYCAR event as the title sponsor,” Curtis Francois, Owner and CEO of Gateway Motorsports Park, said in a release.

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Photo courtesy Gateway Motorsports Park

“This is a tremendous event for the St. Louis region and no one knows our town better than the folks at Bommarito. They are a progressive group, known for a high standard of quality and excellence. It’s the same standard of on-track action and family-friendly experience that we look forward to delivering with our landmark event.”

“We are excited to partner with Gateway Motorsports Park and the Verizon IndyCar Series,” said John Bommarito, President of the Bommarito Automotive Group. “When approached by Gateway about the return of INDYCAR to St. Louis, we felt it was important to have a major St. Louis company step forward and support the return of open wheel racing to the region.  We are extremely proud to be the title sponsor of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500.”

Gateway will be the sixth and last oval race of the season, following earlier races in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Texas, Iowa and Pocono.

Rahal wants to turn 2016’s unrealized potential into reality in 2017

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Graham Rahal likes to say “2016 was a year of tremendous potential.”

But it also was a year that some potential was not realized.

After a career season in 2015, when he finished fourth in the Verizon IndyCar Series and earning two wins and six podium finishes, Rahal slipped back slightly in 2016, finishing fifth with just one win and only four podiums.

So what does 2017 hold in store? If things go well for the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the tremendous potential of 2016 will morph into potential not only realized, but could result in the younger Rahal’s best year ever.

Rahal has the power, the car, the equipment and the personnel to make some major upward moves this year.

“We just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” Rahal said. “Obviously the cars aren’t really going to change at all (major changes are planned for 2018).

“I felt like speed-wise, our performance (in 2016) was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it’s pretty clear to see performance-wise, the team performed a lot better.

“However, we had a lot of things that just didn’t quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did. 2016 the bounces didn’t happen. We had to fight a lot harder, still managed to get a top-five finish in the championship.

“I think that I probably drove better last year than 2015. But hopefully the best is yet to come. As a driver you always have to be critical of where can you improve, where were mistakes, what did you kind of let go, you know, and where did you lose points.”

The 28-year-old Rahal is particularly focused on potentially following in his father’s footsteps of winning the biggest race of all, the Indianapolis 500.

In nine starts in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, the younger Rahal has just two top-10 finishes: third in 2011 and fifth in 2015. At the opposite end of the spectrum Rahal has four finishes of 25th or worse, including two last-place showings (2008 and 2014).

“We really need to improve at Indy,” he said. “That’s our main focus of everything this off-season. And also get a little bit of those breaks. You know, that’s kind of the goal. That’s what we feel like we need.”

The younger Rahal will also reunite for at least the Indianapolis 500 and probably more races with Oriol Servia, which should help upgrade Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s testing, race preparation and data sharing.

“Oriol is a clear plug-in for us,” Rahal said. “First of all, he’s a great guy. Second of all, he will help us. He’s going to help our performance at Indy. I can tell you that right now. And third, he’s been there so many times with the organization, he’s been in and out of the team a handful of times. He knows everybody. He’s been part of the team before. So it’s a clear fit.

“We need just a very experienced guy who can help lead us down the right path, and Oriol is going to be that guy.”

Interestingly, RLL had the opportunity to bring in a full-time second driver, but chose to go with the 42-year-old Servia in a limited number of races for now.

“There were several drivers who came to the team that wanted to run full season, had budgets to do it and everything else, and they were all turned away,” Rahal said. “The team is focused on making sure if there is the addition of a second car full-time, it has to fit the right environment.

“… We really are proud of the environment that we have, and so Oriol is a guy that fits that just perfectly and won’t upset the apple cart, so to speak. … He’s a great guy, and I think he’ll do a heck of a job for us. We’re looking forward to it.”

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Kimi Raikkonen becomes ambassador for sport in Finland

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari walks in the Paddock before practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Ferrari Formula 1 driver Kimi Raikkonen was named as an ambassador for sport in Finland at a ceremony in Helsinki on Wednesday night.

Raikkonen won the F1 world championship with Ferrari in 2007, becoming the third Finn to achieve the feat following Keke Rosberg in 1982 and Mika Hakkinen in 1998 and 1999.

Raikkonen was honored by Finnish prime minister Juha Sipila at an award’s ceremony, with Ferrari reporting that his presence at the event was kept secret until the last moment.

“I’m not that used to making formal speeches,” Raikkonen said, referring to his reputation for his monosyllabic nature.

“But I would like to wish all the best to the winners in every category, as well as those who missed out on the prizes this year.

“I would stress how important it has been in my case to have the support of my family and help from trustworthy colleagues and the people within the Ferrari team, with whom I have worked for so many years now.”

Raikkonen will return for a 15th season in F1 in 2017 – his seventh with Ferrari – as he looks to build on his sixth-place finish in last year’s drivers’ championship.

Will Power looking for first Indy 500 win and second IndyCar title in 2017

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To say 2016 was a challenging season for Will Power is an understatement.

He began by being forced to sit out the first race in St. Petersburg, Florida, when it was thought he had suffered a concussion in a practice crash. As it turned out, Power had what was termed the potential effect of a lingering inner ear infection.

By earning only one point for pole – he was scored 23rd in the standings after St. Petersburg – Power was worried that his season might be over before it had even begun. Being so far back in the points, he was worried that he’d never catch up.

But the Australian indeed rebounded for finishes of third (Phoenix), seventh (Long Beach) and fourth (Barber), bringing him from 23rd to seventh in the standings.

After finishing 19th in the Indianapolis Grand Prix and 10th in the Indianapolis 500, he had one heck of a catharsis at Belle Isle, finishing 20th in the first race but then bounced back to win the second race the following day.

That win would put Power on a path where he’d go on an incredible tear, winning four races and earning two runner-up finishes in a six-race race stretch, leaving him second in the standings with three races to go and just 20 points out of the lead.

The final three races did him in, though. He lost points at Texas with eighth place, and then back-to-back 20th place results at Watkins Glen and the Sonoma season finale knocked Power out of the title race, leaving teammate Simon Pagenaud to capture his first career IndyCar championship.

“It was definitely an interesting season for me,” Power said during Wednesday’s Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “Normally I turn up to the year very fit and ready to go. That was definitely not the case last year.

“I just kind of wasn’t on top of my game, just struggling with some physical stuff like fatigue, and then missing the first race. But I think going into Phoenix, which was really my first race, was more about am I physically fit enough to do this whole race because it’s a very physical track.

“(I) kind of took that approach on a few races starting from there, which was a very different approach for me, kind of puts you in a position to be a little bit more conservative, and gave me insight into that can be a good thing. You know, and things really started to flow for me after Detroit.”

In turn, Power’s confidence climbed exponentially with each succeeding race after the win at Belle Isle. To fight his teammate with everything he had, Power would have to emulate the kind of run Pagenaud had to start the season, with three wins (Long Beach, Barber and Indy Grand Prix) and two runner-ups (St. Petersburg and Phoenix) in the first five races.

“I kind of thought at that point if I want to have a chance of winning the championship, I really need to have a run like Pagenaud had, which was an unbelievable run,” Power said. “I didn’t think that was possible. It actually happened, though, started flying well.

“But unfortunately the last two races were DNF’s. Literally three races’ worth of DNF’s there in the last three races, so that kind of ruined any chance.”

But that’s all in Power’s rearview mirror now. He’s looking ahead for 2017 with a number of goals in mind: a strong season start, to win the Indianapolis 500 for the first time (his best finish to date was second in 2015) and to win his second IndyCar championship.

In other words, to accomplish everything he didn’t or couldn’t in 2016 – particularly the 500.

“You’ve got to do all the homework and the hard work to be competitive and then put yourself in that position,” Power said. “I’ve won two 500-mile races in the last couple years, and I’ve just got to get this one. That’ll do it. Yeah, just one more.”

But at the same time, patience and attention to detail will be key not just at Indianapolis, but through all 17 races of the 2017 season. And not every one of his competitors is prone to having that patience or that attention to details, Power said.

“Everyone is antsy at the first race to just go out and charge,” Power said. “But I think you’ve still just got to know that it’s a 17-race series and every race counts the same amount of points apart from Indy and Sonoma.

“You’re turning up with very similar packages for everywhere this season. So I think it’s going to be about fine-tuning. That’s what happens in the situation where everyone has the same formula for a few years, for a couple years.

“It becomes more competitive because everyone has their good baseline setups. It becomes more about getting the little details right, and I think that’s the type of season that it will be.”

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