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Precocious Larson shows plenty of drive
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Kyle Larson stands in the garage during qualifying at Martinsville Speedway on Friday.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
MARTINSVILLE — Kyle Larson isn’t much for hobbies.
Last year, the racing prodigy tried fishing with his crew chief during some down time in Indiana.
“That was pretty fun,” Larson said, recalling a few small catches. “But I’m no fisherman, by any means.”
The allure of golf, too, has eluded him. He’ll go once or twice a year with friends.
“But I’m not good at it at all,” Larson said in his racing hauler Friday, during a short break in his schedule. “I really only enjoy the first four holes. Then I get worse, so I just drive the golf cart.”
Ah, yes. Getting behind a wheel. Now that’s an activity he enjoys.
Professional athletes, by their nature, have to be pretty single-minded to climb to the highest levels of their sport. Drivers are no different. But despite their busy schedules — or perhaps because of them — they tend to have outside interests that serve as their escape.
Mark Martin is a fitness nut. Kurt Busch shoots clay pigeons. Denny Hamlin is an avid golfer. Jimmie Johnson goes on 20-mile runs.
But Larson, the 21-year-old being hailed as the next big thing in NASCAR? He has nothing else, and he wants nothing else.
“Every young driver believes they can make it someday, and you strive for that goal,” said Larson, who entered his first go-kart race at age 7. “Then you get older and you kind of think about it, you realize how much tougher it is to make it. You lay in bed sometimes and wonder what else you could do if it didn’t work out, because I’m not good at anything else besides racing.”
Nothing? A school subject? A leisure activity? A video game?
“No, nothing,” Larson said with a laugh. “I can’t work on cars. I can’t do anything.
“Racing had to work out.”
The good news is that it’s working out better than he could have ever hoped. The former sprint car standout has drawn effusive praise from Sprint Cup veterans such as Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon for his driving ability, even though he’s a relative newcomer to stock cars.
On Sunday, Larson will drive the No. 51 car in the Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway. It’s his second career start in the highest level of NASCAR; his first came earlier this month at Charlotte, where he finished 37th after experiencing engine woes.
While nobody’s expecting huge things from Larson this weekend, the race is an important learning opportunity for him. He’ll take over the No. 42 car for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing next season and run a full Cup schedule.
“I think he can make the Chase,” said Chris Heroy, who will serve as Larson’s crew chief next season and has been working with him in testing this year. “That’s a good goal. I’ve seen rookies make the Chase, and there’s no reason he can’t. I think working with me this year is helping, and these races are going to help him out a bunch. But he’s got the talent. Every goal I’ve set for him, be it a lap time or a qualifying goal, he’s met.”
Larson took an old-school route to the limelight. Without a lot of money or connections, he worked his way up the ladder by dominating on dirt as a teen. Last year, in his first season in stock cars, he won the championship in the K&N Pro Series East — a NASCAR developmental circuit.
He’s run all 30 Nationwide races this year and finished in the top 10 in half of them. He stands ninth in points.
Along the way, public acknowledgment from the likes of Stewart and Gordon has raised his profile.
“I think it’s really helped me to get where I am now,” Larson said. “It’s an honor to have to have those guys talk about me, but I try not to pay attention to it too much, because I don’t want to let it get to my head or get cocky or anything. In this sport, you can get knocked down really easy and it’s hard to get back up and win races again.”
Larson doesn’t overreact to much. He celebrates wins but never goes nuts. In his younger days, he would climb in his car grab a quick nap before races.
“He’ll conk out on you,” Heroy said with a smile. “He’s 21, man. Everybody took naps when they were 21.”
But Larson’s naps have a purpose.
“Just sit there and shut your eyes and try to visualize the race,” Larson said. “Or the first corner, at least.”
Try as he might, Larson can’t picture what the Martinsville race will look like on Sunday. He tested here a few weeks ago and tried to learn as much as he could during this weekend’s practice sessions.
But given his talent, it’s easy to envision Larson’s future — one with no golf, no fishing, but plenty of checkered flags.
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