HAMPTON, Ga. -- Kyle Larson is used to being the young guy.
He started racing sprint cars at 14, one of the youngest competitors in that discipline in his native state of California. He made the jump into NASCAR's national division at 19. And Friday, the 21-year-old was named the next driver of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing's No. 42 car, which he'll take over on a full-time basis next season after Juan Pablo Montoya moves on.
It's the biggest leap yet for a driver who has excelled at every other step in his career, consistently showing off a talent level that belies his age. He'll try to do that again next season, on the heels of a debate over whether Larson is ready for NASCAR's premier circuit despite having just 29 national starts to his name entering this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"I'd like to prove the people that don't think I'm ready for it wrong, and the guys who think I am ready, let them pump their chests out a little bit," said Larson, clad in a new red Target polo shirt. "But as long as I'm running top 15, I'm happy. I don't know if the fans and the media people think that's good enough, but I think that's about where I'll set my goals for next year. I've never let the pressure get to me, of running well or anything like that. I've always kind of sat back and raced and did the best I could. I think that's paid off for me in all the years I've been racing."
Montoya revealed two weeks ago that he would not return to the No. 42 car next season, ending a run of seven years with EGR. For principal owner Chip Ganassi, the next move was a natural one. Although he spoke with other Sprint Cup drivers, he offered the ride only to Larson, an EGR developmental driver currently competing full-time in the Nationwide Series for Turner Scott Motorsports.
It's something of a controversial decision, given that a year ago Larson was preparing for just his second start in the Camping World Truck Series. The former dirt track phenom stands eighth in Nationwide points, with a best finish of second, and is perhaps best known for being involved in a horrific Daytona crash in which his car spun up into the catch fence. He's yet to complete a full season in any national NASCAR series, and now he's ticketed for the sport's big league.
"We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson's growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step," Ganassi said. "We're sure there are going to be growing pains. We think he's ready. And some of those growing pains will come whenever his first year in the series is. So I think it's a good opportunity. My expectations and advice to him would be to keep the car on the track and run laps."
Larson believes he's ready.
"I feel like I can go out there and contend," he said. "I've raced with some Cup guys in the Nationwide Series this year, learned a lot from them. Raced them hard, beat some of them. So I think I can do it. Chip obviously thinks I can do it. So that's all that really matters to me."
Ganassi said he aims to get Larson some Sprint Cup starts this season, perhaps in a No. 51 car now owned by Turner Scott co-owner Harry Scott Jr. Discussions toward that end are taking place, Ganassi said, though nothing has been finalized. It appears unlikely that Montoya would step out of the No. 42 before the end of the year. "That's not our M.O., to push anybody out of any seats," Ganassi added.
Larson will also run much of the Nationwide slate again next season, likely with Turner Scott, although Ganassi had not yet formalized his schedule. Ganassi added there were no plans at the moment to change any other personnel on the No. 42 team, and that Jamie McMurray had been re-signed to continue in the organization's No. 1 car.
Running a full Sprint Cup schedule in addition to most of the Nationwide slate means Larson will cut down on his sprint car races for 2014. Larson estimates he's running between 55 and 60 of those events this year, and will aim for about 10 next season. "I'm ready to slow down a little bit," Larson said.
Next year, the No. 42 car will be his priority. Ganassi said he didn't make the move out of fear of losing Larson to another team, given that the driver remained under contract to EGR. The owner also said it was a racing decision, and not a sponsor-driven one. Like many in the garage, Ganassi is a big believer in Larson's pure driving ability, which first captured his attention during the Nationwide opener at Daytona earlier this year.
"I remember watching him in the race after hearing how special this kid is, how special he is," Ganassi said. "He was kind of running around the Nationwide race, 14th or 12th or something, and I was like, 'What the hell is so special about this kid?' But sure enough, at the finish line, he was right there. He was here and there at the finish line, I should say. Be that as it may, that to me was special. I've seen that five or six or eight times now, where he gives the impression he's dilly-dallying in the middle of the pack not paying attention, but always at the end he always seems to be where it matters to be. That says something to me."
He's not alone.
"I think Kyle has definitely proven across the board that he can drive anything, anywhere, anytime," said Ryan Newman, who like Larson comes from a dirt background. "And there are a few drivers out there that can do that. And when I say a few, I mean there's 20 or 30 that are that good. But I think ? in the end, we all know Kyle has a lot of talent."
Jimmie Johnson speculated earlier this season that Larson could thrive in a Sprint Cup car, given that he comes from sprint cars that boast horsepower on a similar level. Larson he felt comfortable in a premier-series vehicle during a test earlier this year at Rockingham, N.C.
"With my sprint car background, they're 1,400-pound cars with 900-horsepower engines. So I'm used to having way too much horsepower," said Larson, who won a Truck Series race at Rockingham last year. "So I think it will translate well in the Cup cars. ? I think that's where I struggle a little bit in the Nationwide stuff, I probably don't really understand momentum quite as good as Kyle (Busch) or somebody. So I think the Cup stuff will be a little bit better for me. We'll just have to wait and see, I guess."
Newman said Larson's biggest challenge could lie outside of the car.
"I think the biggest challenge he's going to have ahead of him is not what happens outside of this room, but what happens inside of this room, and the media part of it, the publicity part of it," the 17-time Sprint Cup race winner said in the Atlanta media center. "The potential pressure if you let it get to you is more of a challenge, I think, then sitting in the seat behind the wheel and doing your job as a driver."
Larson said he's learned to not let outside factors affect him. "As long as I'm out there living up to my expectations or Chip's expectations, that's all that matters," he said. As far as the car owner is concerned, there was no other choice but this "kid" who impressed almost every time he took to the track.
"There's an opportunity here, and he's a great driver, and he's obviously the No. 1 pick as said by many other people besides myself," Ganassi said. "Nobody deserves a shot more than he does."
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