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.”

Maverick Vinales takes Qatar MotoGP pole as qualifying is rained off

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Maverick Viñales will make his Yamaha MotoGP debut from pole position after qualifying at Qatar’s Losail International Circuit was rained off on Saturday evening.

Viñales claimed his maiden MotoGP race win last year with Suzuki, prompting a move to Yamaha in place of three-time champion Jorge Lorenzo, who made a switch to Ducati.

After impressing throughout pre-season testing, Viñales laid down an early marker in Qatar by setting the pace in practice.

His performances would prove key as rain on Saturday in Qatar forced officials to cancel qualifying, leading them to combine the times from practice to form the grid.

Viñales’ time of 1:54.316 from FP1 handed him his first MotoGP pole by half a second from Suzuki replacement Andrea Iannone, while defending world champion Marc Marquez will start third for Honda.

2015 and 2016 Moto2 champion Johann Zarco will make his MotoGP debut from fourth on the grid, with Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso fifth ahead of Scott Redding.

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi will begin his search for a 10th title from P10 on the grid, two places ahead of perennial rival Lorenzo, whose Ducati debut will come from P12.

Sauber super-sub Giovinazzi stars in maiden F1 qualifying, takes 16th

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Sauber’s last-minute substitute Antonio Giovinazzi turned in one of the performances of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix on Saturday by claiming 16th on the grid for his maiden grand prix.

Ferrari youngster Giovinazzi was drafted in by Sauber for FP3 and qualifying after Pascal Wehrlein was deemed unfit amid ongoing issues with his back following a crash at the Race of Champions in January that left him with a minor injury.

Giovinazzi was notified on Friday night that he would be replacing Wehrlein for the remainder of the weekend, but did not find out until Saturday morning as he had already gone to bed.

Despite getting less than an hour of track running in which to get to grips with the tricky Albert Park circuit, Giovinazzi starred in qualifying to finish 16th, narrowly missing out on a Q2 berth and ending up just a couple of tenths off experienced teammate Marcus Ericsson.

“That is a special day for me kicking off my first Formula 1 grand prix weekend,” Giovinazzi said after the session.

“I am really happy with my performance today, I was just a few tenths away from Q2.

“It will be a long race tomorrow; a lot can happen here in Melbourne. I will do my best to put in my maximum performance.”

The call from Sauber capped off a rollercoaster five months for Giovinazzi that started with a bitter defeat in the GP2 title race to Red Bull youngster Pierre Gasly at the end of November in Abu Dhabi.

Giovinazzi was then contacted by Ferrari and offered a deal to become its reserve driver for 2017, leading to a private test in its 2015-spec car at Fiorano.

When Wehrlein was declared unfit for the first pre-season test in Barcelona, Giovinazzi was drafted in by Sauber for two days’ worth of running, preparing him for the shock call-up in Melbourne.

Giovinazzi will become the first Italian driver to start a race since Jarno Trulli and Vitantonio Liuzzi on Sunday, the pair making their final F1 appearances at the 2011 Brazilian Grand Prix for Caterham and HRT respectively.

A lasting legacy: Eric Medlen’s death spurred NHRA safety gains

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) John Medlen remembers his son’s final seconds like they were his first steps.

Eric Medlen inched his dragster to the starting line and waited for the signal. John, also his son’s crew chief, made a couple of routine checks, looked in Eric’s eyes, gave him a thumbs-up and pounded on the hood twice.

“Neither one of us realized he had a little less than three seconds to live,” John said.

Ten years after Eric’s fatal practice run at Gainesville Raceway, home to one of professional drag racing’s premier events, John is still dealing with the demons that come from burying a child. Eric’s death became a defining moment for NHRA, mostly because of the way John reacted to it and the safety changes he fought for.

“Eric would not want anybody here on this earth that’s left to be burdened to the point where you can’t live your life because of his death,” he said. “… I hear his spirit tell me all the time, `Keep going, Dad. Make these cars safe. Keep somebody else from having these kinds of issues.”‘

Eric grew up around racing in Oakdale, California. His father placed his bassinet on a workbench in his garage, and he spent hours at drag strips. Even the school bus dropped him off in front of dad’s race shop.

John Medlen has left John Force Racing to join rival Don Schumacher Racing. (Photo courtesy John Force Racing)

John steered his son toward other pursuits, and to an extent, that worked. Eric was a champion calf-roper in high school, then a mechanical engineering major in college.

But the track always beckoned. The man nicknamed “Duff” spent eight years working as a John Force Racing crewmember before the team gave him his big break as a driver in 2004.

“I tried to talk him out of it, but he wasn’t going to have it,” John said. “If it had wheels, he was going to race it. Go karts, sprint cars, it didn’t matter what it was.”

Eric won six times in 72 starts in the National Hot Rod Association and finished in the top five in points in each of his three years at the pro level. His death shocked the series, even if everyone associated with it knew the perils.

Drag racing has always been one of the most dangerous forms of motorsports, whether it’s on backroads, city streets or professional strips. It became increasingly popular in the 1950s: Bigger engines, lighter cars, faster speeds – and increased risk.

Eric reached the top level, where nitromethane-powered dragsters race in side-by-side lanes and routinely top 300 mph in less than five seconds.

“You know what can happen. Everybody in the industry knows what can happen,” John said. “But we’ve never seen an injury like Eric’s before.”

On March 19, 2007, a day after the NHRA’s Gatornationals, Eric and his Force teammates stuck around to test at the historic track, a common move that allows teams to acquire valuable data while reducing travel costs.

As Eric, 33, pulled to the starting line, everything seemed normal. He released the trans brake, allowing his Funny Car to lunge down the track with the G-forces of a fighter jet. And in the blink of an eye, Eric endured a violent, mid-strip tire shake that snapped the chassis, caused his car to slide out of control and forced his head to whip side to side about 150 times. Goodyear later said something apparently punctured the tire at high speed, causing it to lose pressure and start jerking the entire car with more than 40,000 pounds of force.

John rushed to the crumpled car as it came to a stop against a concrete retaining wall, found Eric unconscious in the cockpit and started yelling at him to breathe. John could tell the wreck was bad. Then he saw a paramedic shine a flashlight into Eric’s eyes, turn to a colleague with a look of desperation and try again.

“I’ll never forget,” John said. “She threw that flashlight into the corner of the ambulance. You could tell this was serious.”

Eric’s head swelled so much because of a traumatic brain injury that he was hardly recognizable in his hospital bed. Doctors worked around the clock trying to relieve pressure and improve blood flow to his brain.

Despite the aggressive treatment, Eric’s body lost the ability to manage its salt and water levels.

After four days with no improvement, the decision was made to take Eric off life support.

He died immediately.

“People were mourning, people were hurt, people were dying inside,” said team owner John Force, who stayed at the hospital with Eric’s family. “But they also were already thinking about moving ahead. They weren’t going to let this happen again.”

Force’s cars skipped the next race, and he canceled the reality TV show “Driving Force,” which focused on him and his three drag-racing daughters.

“We’re not going back to making movies,” Force said. “We’re going to learn how to build race cars.”

Eric’s father led the charge, meeting with NHRA executives, competitors, industry experts and even military and NASA engineers. They studied metal energy, seatbelts, tires, padding.

“As long as I’m on this earth, I’m not going to have Eric give his life in vain,” John said. “We’re the ones here that can make all that count for him and for his memory.”

Changes came quickly.

There were tighter tolerances for chromoly tubing used to build chassis. There were wider roll cages. There was thicker padding surrounding drivers’ helmets. There were now seven seat belt attachment points, keeping drivers more tightly harnessed for added stability and support.

John Medlen, 66, works for Don Schumacher Racing now. Returning to Gainesville every year is the hardest part of his life. Sights, sounds, smells, all come rushing back like the crash was a day – not a decade – ago. He welcomes questions about Eric’s triumphs and tragedy, mostly because they help remind him about the son he lost, the life they lived together and the reason he still works to make the series safer.

“It’s very difficult, but you have to do it,” John said. “You’ve got to face your adversaries and deal with the demons. They’re not going away.”

There have been a few NHRA deaths since Eric’s – Scott Kalitta (2008), Neal Parker (2010) and Mark Niver (2010) – but none of those were caused by tire shake.

Six months after Eric’s death, Force endured a similar tire shake during a race in Texas. The violent crash broke his left ankle, left wrist and several fingers and put a deep cut on his right knee. Force was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where he spent weeks before leaving in a wheelchair.

But the 16-time champion avoided any head trauma, which he attributed to the NHRA safety modifications put in place following Eric’s accident.

Force responded by erecting life-size statues of Eric at his team facility in Indiana, and at his corporate headquarters in California. He created museums to house Eric’s race cars.

He sees the impact they have on everyone, even his 5-year-old grandson.

“He pointed at the statue and goes, `What is that, Grandpa?'” Force recounted. “And I said, `That’s Eric Medlen. That’s the guy that saved your Grandpa’s life and I ain’t never forgetting that.”

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org

Grosjean: ‘Unbelievable’ to score Haas’ best F1 qualifying result in Australia

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Romain Grosjean hailed Haas’ Formula 1 qualifying performance in Australia as “unbelievable” after picking up its best Saturday result since joining the grid.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, with Grosjean leading its charge through its debut campaign.

Haas enters its sophomore year in 2017 looking to build on its eighth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, and made a strong start in Australia on Saturday.

While new driver Kevin Magnussen dropped out in Q1 following an error on his hot lap, Grosjean was able to take Haas into Q3 before securing sixth place on the grid for Sunday’s season-opener.

The result marks Haas’ best qualifying result to date in F1, beating Grosjean’s run to P7 ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix last November.

“It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us. It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently,” Grosjean said after the session.

“We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good, others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.