By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — NASCAR’s biggest stars have all moved on. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are television analysts while Tony Stewart is racing sprint cars again. Danica Patrick traded her firesuit for athleisure-wear while Carl Edwards just kind of disappeared.
America’s top motorsports series is in need of a new face. The rapid wave of retirements brought in a crop of fresh-faced young drivers tasked with carrying NASCAR through a tough transition, but no clear superstar to fill empty seats and shape the next generation of racers.
It might be a job best suited for Kyle Larson, considered by many the best hope to bridge the gap between grassroots racing and NASCAR — and perhaps attract new fans to motorsports in a time of need. He is young at 26, and like childhood idol Gordon he hails from California and made his name racing sprint cars. Larson has the raw talent to take risks that other drivers avoid, and he has built a reputation as a clean racer who won’t wreck a rival to win.
His style has appealed to hardcore fans and his promise has piqued the interest of casual observers. He is half-Japanese, the most successful graduate of NASCAR’s diversity program, and the only Asian-American full-time driver in NASCAR.
Larson has all the elements to be the next Gordon or Stewart. Fair or not, he knows there are expectations to bring attention and excitement to NASCAR.
“I think if I just continue doing what I am doing it takes care of itself, I don’t look at it like I have to work too hard to save motorsports,’’ Larson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think if I just keep racing all the stuff that I do, it’s good for all of motorsports.’’
The pressure has been on Larson before he ever drove a stock car.
Gordon, Stewart and Kasey Kahne anointed Larson the real deal after following his sprint car career, which exploded one magical night in 2011 at Stewart’s Eldora Speedway in Ohio. Larson that evening became only the second driver in history to win in all three kinds of USAC cars in a single night.
Chip Ganassi hired him before the 2012 season and put him in a stock car for the first time even though the young driver had been on a path toward IndyCar. Larson was 19 and on a fast track to a Cup ride just two years later. He has won five races in the five seasons since, but he has probably lost a dozen more because he is still learning to close out a victory.
“He’s been at the front, he just has to close out some of these things,’’ Ganassi said. “I think he treats people with a lot more respect than they treat him with, and that’s his attitude, and we’re OK with that. He’s approached NASCAR with his own pace. I don’t want to say he has nothing to learn, we all have things to learn every single day, but I’m perfectly happy with his angle of attack or progression or angle of progression.’’
Larson’s most recent defeat, his last time behind the wheel, is one of the most difficult to swallow of his career.
Christopher Bell, like Larson a budding star with a sprint car following, passed Larson on the final lap of the Chili Bowl last month to deny Larson the one victory he wants most. Bell won the $10,000 prize and the “Golden Driller’’ trophy for the third consecutive year, and Larson spent several sleepless nights replaying the final lap in his head.
The break between the Chili Bowl and Speedweeks was the longest stretch of idle time Larson has had this offseason. He spent most of December racing in New Zealand and finds the routine of competing every night in sprint cars helpful in bouncing back after defeat.
“I’m just ready for the next race,’’ Larson said. “It just makes it a lot easier to move on when you can go racing, get back in your back the next day or a couple of days later. It just is easier to forget about it when you can race again.’’
Larson estimates he will race roughly 75 events this calendar year, only 38 of which are in NASCAR. The Indianapolis 500 remains on the horizon but not a priority; still, he was intrigued when Fernando Alonso won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and said his next big project is “unprecedented in motorsport.’’ The former Formula One champion is likely going to try to race several disciplines in the biggest races in the world, and Larson wouldn’t mind a similar plan. Larson was part of Ganassi’s 2015 Rolex victory.
“I feel like I’m kind of in that same mold a little bit. I obviously don’t have the opportunity to run an F1 race, but I could do the Indy 500 and I’ve won the Rolex and I race in NASCAR and I’m still racing midgets and whatever,’’ Larson said. “I feel like I do a little of everything already and probably even more so than he does. He’s so famous and he’s probably one of the greatest race car drivers of all time, so it is cool to get a little bit of recognition as someone who can do what he’s trying to plan.’’ The audience has an appetite for true racers and Larson has done well in earning new supporters. The married father of two is raising his kids at the race track, the way he and his wife grew up, and he is figuring out how far he can go in motorsports.
Rival team owner Rick Hendrick sees Larson as today’s Stewart, minus the notorious temper. “He’s not quite as ornery as Tony and outspoken, but I think he’s a great little driver,’’ Hendrick said. “That’s what the fans like, somebody who just really can drive a car. He’s one of the most aggressive and has the least amount of baggage. He didn’t wreck anybody and he runs everybody clean, he doesn’t run over people. He’s fast and good, so I think we need him and I think we need him to win.’’