DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Larson didn’t play football, basketball or baseball as a kid in Elk Grove, Calif., south of Sacramento. He didn’t go to football, basketball or baseball games.
He went to races. He went to his first when he was a week old and apparently liked it. Look at old family pictures and movies and he’s in a little car or playing a racing video game or arranging Matchbox cars three-wide on the floor.
Larson has been racing, and winning, since he was 7. He’s competed in almost every form of racing but snowmobiles and ran more than 120 races last season. His full-time job in 2013 was to compete in the Nationwide Series, and he was rookie of the year.
After one season in NASCAR’s AAA division, Larson moves to Sprint Cup. He’ll make his debut for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates on Sunday in the Daytona 500.
Larson is asked if he’s rushing.
“No, not really,” he says. “Because everything I’ve done in my career, even from the times I was racing go-karts, everybody thought I might have been in a rush. But then it all worked out and did real well.”
Larson is 21, but he probably gets carded when he buys gum. An Asian-American, he’s small and appears younger than his age. Size and courage, of course, have no connection. On the track he is fearless.
Remember the Nationwide Series crash in his first race last season? That was his car that went airborne and disintegrated, his engine that flew into the catch fence, his story that led every news and sportscast.
Thirty fans were injured. Larson’s health and confidence were intact.
Public relations representatives told him the media would want to talk and would he be all right?
“I’m fine,” Larson said.
Says Felix Sabates who with Chip Ganassi owns the team: “He gets out and says, ‘Where’s the next race?’ ”
Larson worried about the fans hit by the debris but not about himself. He said he’s been in scarier crashes.
“This kid doesn’t get rattled,” Sabates says over a bottle of water in the Daytona International Speedway infield. “You can tell a lot about a young driver on the radio when you listen to the feedback he gives the crew. And when he makes a mistake he says, ‘Sorry, my fault.’ ”
Larson made a mistake in his Budweiser duel Thursday. He needed to finish 15th or better to qualify for the 500. He was running well when his spotter told him to “watch low,” meaning a car was coming up low behind him. Larson thought he was supposed to go low. He did and lost eight positions.
“He said: ‘My fault, I’ll get them back,’ ” says Sabates.
Larson finished seventh, the best finish in either duel by the eight Sprint Cup rookies.
Veterans Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who came up the way Larson did, racing on whatever turf they could find, are effusive in their praise. Stewart says Larson is better than he and Gordon – two of NASCAR’s best drivers of all-time – were at the same age.
Watch Larson in his Target Chevrolet and there’s an ease to his movements. He’s smooth like Jeff Gordon. Larson looked up to Gordon and Stewart as a kid.
When he looks over at them Sunday, and realizes they want what he wants, will be there a ‘wow’ moment?
“I don’t think so,” Larson says. “I guess if you count (Thursday) night this will be my sixth Cup race (he ran four for Harry Scott Jr. last season). I think the wows are done.”
The first time I interviewed Gordon he was nervous, or came across as if he was. Maybe it was the moustache.
I ask Larson if he gets nervous or scared or intimidated.
“I don’t think I ever get intimidated,” he says. “I go back to running with the World of Outlaws when I was 15 or whatever. You line up next to guys like Sammy Swindell and Steve Kinser and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is pretty crazy’ and you can let them get under your skin pretty easy.
“But then, after you realize you are just as good as they are if not better than them some nights, it builds your confidence and stuff. Then you start beating them.”
Teammate Jamie McMurray, 37, doesn’t know Larson well. McMurray has a wife and kids and Larson is single. McMurray says he gets up about the time Larson gets in.
“It’s easy to be fast in a car,” McMurray says as he stands outside the Target hauler. “There are a lot of kids that come up from trucks and Nationwide and they’re fast. They can’t race. Kyle is fast and he’s also a smart, good racer.”
McMurray says that drivers who raced on dirt, such as Larson, are adept at searching for a groove. They’ll go low and high until they find one. That, he says, is Larson’s best attribute.
Larson comes off as quiet and courteous and also funny. He does a great imitation of Ganassi.
“He’s truly a nice guy and I hope we don’t ruin him,” Sabates says. “This sport has a tendency of taking nice guys and sometimes, in a few years, turning them into prima donnas, and spoiled.”
Sabates smiles and takes a deep drink of water.
The changes to the Chase this season are rookie friendly. Win a race and you’re almost certainly in the Chase. They are unlikely to run with the veterans all season but they might for one race.
Sabates tells Larson to win the 500 so they don’t have to wait.
Says Larson: “I want to win more than one.”
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; email@example.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen