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.”

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

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