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.”

Magnussen set for Mercedes DTM test next week

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 15:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark and McLaren Honda waves to the fans during the drivers' parade before the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Former McLaren driver Kevin Magnussen will try his hand at a DTM car next week in Spain at a test with Mercedes.

Magnussen raced for McLaren in 2014 before being dropped to make way for Fernando Alonso in 2015, and was released from his contract earlier this year after the team opted to retain Alonso and Jenson Button for next season.

The Dane is known to be evaluating his options in Formula 1 for next year, and has said that he would be open to another reserve role with a team.

Magnussen enjoyed a successful test with Porsche in Barcelona earlier this month, trying out the LMP1 919 Hybrid car that he called “the most advanced race car in the world”.

Magnussen had been tipped as a candidate to take Nico Hulkenberg’s place in the third Porsche entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, but it was confirmed on Saturday that the German marque would be scaling down to just two cars for 2016.

Now, Magnussen will test at DTM car with Mercedes at Jerez next week at the series’ annual rookie test.

“Yes, I’m going down there testing,” Magnussen told Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet.

“It’ll probably be on the third day [Thursday]. It will be a great experience and I appreciate the opportunity. I’m looking forward to trying another new race car for the first time.

“They are evaluating drivers and might need one for next season, but I’m not tied to anything for next year. For me it will be a great chance to try a racing car I’ve never driven before and then we’ll see what the future brings.”

Magnussen is set to be joined at the test by another ex-F1 driver, Giedo van der Garde, who will also be testing for Mercedes according to a report from Autosport.

Hamilton laughs off criticism about his lifestyle

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain waves after he captured the second position at the qualifying at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday.  (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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Lewis Hamilton has laughed off criticism from former boss Ron Dennis about his lifestyle and behavior, saying that his activities away from Formula 1 have had a positive impact on his on-track performances.

Hamilton was signed to McLaren by Ron Dennis at the age of 13 before making his F1 debut with the team nine years later in 2007.

He won his first drivers’ championship with McLaren the following year, but left for Mercedes after the 2012 season.

Since then, Hamilton has gone on to win two more world titles and establish himself as one of F1’s all-time greats, while McLaren has failed to claim a single race victory in the same period.

Earlier this week, Dennis said that Hamilton’s celebrity lifestyle and behaviour would not be tolerated if he still were at McLaren, and that he looks at the Briton with “mixed emotions”.

When asked about the comments on Saturday, Hamilton laughed them off.

“I don’t know why he is touching on that subject,” Hamilton said. “Maybe he has nothing else positive to talk about!

“Who I am today, regardless of whom I was working for, is my own creation. I do a lot of things outside the sport, and I think it has a positive impact on my career.”

Hamilton admitted earlier this month that excessive partying following his third world title success in the USA had left him feeling “run down”, and also attributed his busy schedule to a minor car accident in Monaco ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Grosjean takes grid penalty, Merhi to start from pit lane in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Romain Grosjean of France and Lotus drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean will start Sunday’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from the back of the grid after receiving a penalty for changing the gearbox on his Lotus car.

Grosjean failed to set a time in the second stage of Saturday’s qualifying session after a gearbox issue forced him to park up at the side of the track.

The Frenchman was classified 15th, but will now drop to P20 for the start of the race after taking a new gearbox to resolve the issue.

As a result, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Marcus Ericsson and Will Stevens all move up one place, filling out positions 15-18 on the grid.

Grosjean will start 19th after the stewards found that Manor had changed the suspension setup on Roberto Merhi’s car after qualifying, breaking parc ferme rules. The Spaniard is now required to start from the pit lane.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

WATCH LIVE: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on NBCSN, Live Extra from 7am ET

Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg of Germany steers his car during the first free practice at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
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It all ends here – the 2015 Formula 1 season comes to a close under the floodlights of the Yas Marina Circuit today with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

2015 will by no means go down as a classic season – those experiencing the kind of dominance Lewis Hamilton enjoyed rarely do – but it has nevertheless been an entertaining, interesting and intriguing one that has laid plenty of foundations for the future.

Nico Rosberg is one man who is looking firmly ahead to 2016 already, having rediscovered the kind of form that made him a title contender at this point last year. With six poles in a row and two wins on the bounce, the German will be gunning to make it a hat-trick on Sunday.

However, with Hamilton starting alongside him on the front row and an engine that is a little more overworked than most, Rosberg knows he faces a stiff challenge to end the year on a high and gain more momentum ahead of the new campaign.

This fascinating dynamic sets us up for a thrilling duel between Rosberg and Hamilton once again in Abu Dhabi, one year on from their scrap for the championship.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Few eras are ending on Sunday in Abu Dhabi, but it will nevertheless mark an important point for most on the grid. Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz Jr. and Felipe Nasr will all finish their rookie years; Manor will have done what many doubted it could do by finishing a full season; quite whether drivers Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi will return with the team next year remains to be seen.

Alas, the end of the season is always a time for pressure to be released. After a busy year of jetting all over the world, the paddock will be afforded two months of respite before pre-season testing kicks into gear – a much-needed relief for many.

For those at home, make sure you enjoy the final race of the season and get your F1 fix in before the long winter kicks in.

You can watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.