Kyle Larson: Ready or Not, Let Him Drive
With Juan Pablo Montoya on his way out at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, speculation abounds as to who will replace him in the Target #42 Chevrolet. Many of the rumors center on EGR developmental driver Kyle Larson, currently running his first full season at the NASCAR Nationwide level. Despite being only 21 years old, Larson has shown that he can compete at the national touring level. He's recovered from a horrific season-opening crash at Daytona to become perhaps the hottest prospect in all of NASCAR. While he could benefit from additional seasoning and experience of another year in Nationwide, EGR should pull the trigger and put Larson in the car full time in 2014.
Larson's NASCAR experience so far has been one of virtually uninterrupted success. A graduate of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, he's shown that he's more than just a checkmark on a demographic sheet. In 2012, Larson ran the full schedule in the K&N Pro Series East and won the series championship. In 14 races he had two wins, eight top five and 12 top ten finishes. This year he's won a Camping World Truck race and has 12 top ten finishes in 22 Nationwide races. He's also continued to run the occasional Sprint Car race (he was at the same Southern Iowa Speedway event that Tony Stewart broke his leg at) and done well. In short, Kyle Larson is a driver on his way up and it's a matter of when, not if, he gets a Sprint Cup ride.
The primary argument against putting Larson in the Cup ride for 2014 revolves around his age. Critics say that he lacks the necessary experience at the tracks on the schedule and that giving him the #42 is too much too soon. They point to the long line of young hotshot drivers who struggled in a Sprint Cup car and who never recovered from the experience. With Larson under contract to Ganassi for the next eight years, what's the rush?
That same argument is the one that NFL teams for years used to take highly touted rookie quarterbacks and sit them on the bench. An NFL offense is too complicated and defenses too fast, the argument went. Starting a rookie, no matter how talented, would only stunt his growth and possibly cause fatal damage to his confidence. Pundits pointed at the long line of NFL failures who might only have been been successful if the team had been a little more patient.
Yet that implies that the player in question indeed could have been successful at the NFL level. What if they simply did not have what it takes? Would additional coaching and practice time really make the kind of difference needed? Even a decade on the sidelines would not have made Ryan Leaf into Joe Montana. Sometimes it comes down to the player. Experience helps and can turn a good player into a great one. But nothing can simulate the speed of the game and the only way to truly learn how to be an NFL quarterback is to indeed BE an NFL quarterback.
The same rule applies to NASCAR drivers. It helps to understand the layout of the various tracks. Experience teaches the finer points of entry and exit. Seat time helps a driver learn what works at what doesn't. There is no way to simulate what it's like to run three wide, ten cars deep in a Talladega draft. So there is merit in saying drivers need some experience at the tracks they'll compete on before climbing behind the wheel of a the most powerful ride in NASCAR. There's too much at stake to just toss the dice and let the chips fall where they may.
At the same time there is a world of difference between a Camping World Silverado, a Nationwide Camaro, and a Sprint Cup Chevy SS. The power levels are different, resulting in a different driving style necessary to find speed. The vehicles handle differently in traffic. The adjustments have different impacts on the track. And as there is no way to simulate running in a restrictor plate draft, there's no way to fully understand how to do it until you actually do it. A young driver can watch all the tape in the world but they will learn more in their first race than they could possibly glean from the video. Heck, playing NASCAR's console game will probably teach them more; Denny Hamlin said as much after his first win at Pocono several years ago.
Sooner or later the time comes for a driver to get out on the track and put the car into gear. That's when the education stops and the learning begins. Their own innate talent and ability to assimilate information will determine whether or not they succeed. It helps to have good equipment and the right support system in place for a young driver. But the only way to find out if they have the ability to be a successful Sprint Cup driver is to let them drive the car.
As noted before, critics trot out a laundry list of drivers who came into NASCAR with much fanfare only to flame out because they, “were not ready for the Sprint Cup series.” Casey Atwood is a prime example. In 2001, he took a full time ride with the new Dodge team Ray Evernham launched. He had only three prior Sprint Cup starts in addition to a pair of Nationwide seasons. Atwood survived two challenging seasons, never finished above 29th in points, and to date has made only two Sprint Cup starts since. At 33 years of age, he's still younger than many of the drivers on tour. Yet he's never received so much as a sniff from another team. He spent several years out of the sport and has been quoted as saying he wished he'd had more Nationwide experience before moving up.
What no one wants to say about this cautionary tale is that it's entirely possible (if not likely) that Atwood did not have what it took to begin with. Between 2003 and 2009, he ran 82 races at the Nationwide level with zero wins, one top five finish and 98 laps led. He had opportunities at competitive teams but did not perform. Was his confidence crushed by his lack of success at the Sprint Cup level? Surely it was. But if a bad season and lost ride was enough to destroy his driving ability then he never had the mental toughness in the first place. The Sprint Cup series is perhaps the most grueling run in all of professional sport. It is 40 weeks long with limited downtime and no room for letup. Only those with the highest levels of focus and natural talent win championships there.
Being young doesn't mean being mentally weak and doesn't mean a driver cannot be effective. Kyle Busch began his full time Cup career at age 20; he won two races that year and scored nine top five finishes. Similar to Larson, he entered the Cup series with only one full Nationwide season under his belt. It doesn't seem to have stunted Busch's growth. Jimmie Johnson had nearly two full Nationwide seasons but he also had no Truck, ARCA, or K&N Pro experience- meaning his overall stock car experience was similar to Larson's.
Johnson makes for an excellent point of comparison. In a recent interview with Autoweek, Johnson had some very interesting words for the Nationwide rookie.
- “You don't know until you get there... I think the Cup car will suit his style far better than a Nationwide car. You can learn the tracks and understand some things, but you've to be careful not to stay there too long.”
Like Larson, Jimmie Johnson was not a championship contender at the Nationwide level. He ran the series to gain a greater understanding of the NASCAR schedule and to set himself up for the next level. His eyes were on the greater prize, the Sprint Cup. Now he's a five time champion driving for NASCAR's elite organization. Jimmie got his opportunity and he capitalized on it.
Will Kyle Larson get the same chance? At present, Chip Ganassi is tight-lipped on his 2014 plans for the #42. The only certainty at EGR right now is that Jaime McMurray will be back in a fully-sponsored ride in the #1 car. Ganassi has already been linked with virtually every big-name free agent available but none of them truly make sense. Any major free agent will want a long term commitment from EGR, a commitment the organization is hesitant to give with Larson waiting in the wings. It's also worth noting that the major free agents all come with their own baggage. Kurt Busch is one meltdown away from a NASCAR suspension and a sponsor revolt. Despite his recent win at Indy, Ryan Newman is on the downside of his career.
One possible scenario would be the pairing of Mark Martin with Larson in the car. Martin can drive the majority of the races while Kyle starts a handful of Sprint Cup events and runs another full season at the Nationwide level. Yet if Newman is heading towards the twilight of his career, what is Martin? He can be a mentor and teacher for young Larson but as noted earlier the fastest way to learn is to get in the seat and do it. Adding Martin by definition prevents that seat time from happening. It's also questionable that Martin would even be available to EGR; he ran for a previous incarnation of the organization when it was DEI and left in part because the cars were not up to par. He'll be driving Hendrick engines (which EGR has) in Hendrick chassis (which EGR does not) for the balance of 2013. Would he want to step down a notch in quality?
No, what EGR needs to do at this point is to make a decision and follow it through. If they believe that Kyle Larson is the future of their organization then put him in the car. It's the only way to know if he's ready. It may well accelerate his learning curve and bring him to Johnson-level success sooner. If he fails then EGR knows that he cannot be the face of their franchise and they can begin the process of finding the next one. For now, let him drive.