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Is Larson ready to fill Montoya's seat?

NASCAR.com

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Before Kyle Busch embarked upon his first full-time season on NASCAR's premier circuit, he had already won three times in the Nationwide Series. He had already made 54 starts in the sport's national division, six of them at the Sprint Cup level. He had already established himself as a can't-miss talent destined to win at the highest levels of the sport.

But looking back it today, 27 Sprint Cup victories later, he wonders if he was prepared to make the jump.

"I probably wasn't ready, but the first year was a little rough. It was a little rocky," Busch said Friday at Michigan International Speedway. "The cars were extremely hard to drive and get used to. But then the second year, it seems like you start picking up things, your competitors start picking up on who you are and how you race, and then maybe you get cut a little more breaks when you don't have a yellow stripe across your rear bumper. From there, that's when you really start to develop into your own and become a part of this series. Rookie years are tough."

As Kyle Larson will inevitably discover. The budding Nationwide Series standout is ticketed for NASCAR's big league, eventually -- though it's easy to wonder if that progression will be accelerated, given that Juan Pablo Montoya will not return to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after this season. Larson competes for Turner Scott Motorsports, but he is an EGR developmental driver, and team minority owner Felix Sabates mentioned the 21-year-old as a prospect for the No. 42 car in a radio interview earlier this week.

Entering Saturday's inaugural Nationwide event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Larson has made 27 starts at NASCAR's national level -- six of them in the Camping World Truck Series, where he won a race earlier this year at Rockingham, N.C. The native of Elk Grove, Calif., has yet to start a Sprint Cup event, but that hasn't prevented Larson from becoming a constant topic of conversation whenever the No. 42 car and next season are mentioned.

Larson's car control was evident in last month's Truck Series event on the Eldora Speedway dirt track, and his talent is obvious to anyone who's ever watched him race. And yet, he hasn't even completed a full season in the Nationwide ranks, where he stands eighth in driver standings. Is that enough to prepare him for a Sprint Cup Series where even two-time Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stands 20th in points?

"Is Larson ready for it? You could say he is. You could say he isn't," Busch said. "It's the same as myself. A lot of people said I was. I ran the Nationwide Series in 2004, and change a couple races, the way the outcomes were, and maybe I could have been champion. ? Times have changed a little bit. Cars have changed a little bit. Larson, I think, is in a different situation than I was. I'd like to see him more top-fives, more challenging for wins like he was at Bristol earlier this year. In a couple of other places, he's been real close. You can throw a guy like that in a Cup car and he could be another Jimmie Johnson -- doesn't win very much or if ever in Nationwide, but then goes and wins 60-something Cup races."

Indeed, in two full seasons on the now-Nationwide circuit, Johnson won just one race -- at Chicagoland in the summer of 2001. His most famous moment in that series wasn't a victory; it was a frightening head-on, high-speed, pre-SAFER barrier crash at Watkins Glen from which he thankfully emerged unscathed. And yet, Johnson moved into the sport's premier series and everything clicked, to the tune of 64 wins and five championships, and counting.

Does Larson have the capacity to make a similar transition? Perhaps, but Johnson said there are more things to be gained with experience.

"When you look at Kyle's background, and he's driving cars with far more power than grip, I think the Cup car will suit his style far better than a Nationwide car," he said. "But you do need that foundation of knowing these tracks, because when we show up, our fastest lap we run all weekend will probably be our first lap right now. And if Kyle Larson wants to go to Cup next year, that's tough to do. He's going to need the whole session to get where he needs to, and then you're five or six adjustments behind the fast guys. And that's when the Nationwide Series is so good. You can learn the tracks and understand some things there."

It's a debate that Joey Logano, who moved into NASCAR's top division with Joe Gibbs Racing at age 18, can relate to. Although he was younger then than Larson is now, the experience level is comparable: Logano entered with 19 Nationwide races (and one victory) along with three starts on the Sprint Cup tour and one on the Truck Series. Despite two race wins, he struggled to find consistency, and this past offseason moved to Penske Racing.

"Kyle's got a ton of talent, and there's no doubt in my mind he's going to be in the Sprint Cup Series," Logano said after winning the pole for Sunday's race. "It's a big step. I know it's a big step. And I think he knows it's going to be a big step. I think he can handle it, also. He's a lot older than I was when I first started doing it; he has a lot more racing experience than I did when I first started. I feel like he does have a shot at it. I don't know what the plan is with that car and what they're going to do, and I really try to focus on my own stuff. But I think Kyle is an amazing talent that is going to make it someday. But at the same time, I always tell people don't rush it, because sometimes it's not quite worth it."

Johnson said staying in the Nationwide ranks for too long can work against drivers who might develop habits that hinder their ability to handle the more powerful Sprint Cup cars. But in Larson's case, the questions center on a shortage of Nationwide experience rather than an excess of it, in an age when up-and-coming drivers like Austin Dillon and Stenhouse are staying in the lower series longer to try and be more prepared when they do move up.

Then again, it might not matter.

"Whether you're ready or not, I don't think you're ever really ready to make the jump from Truck or Nationwide to Cup. I think the jump is so large, that you can definitely see it whether you're involved in it or you're outside watching it," Busch said.

"I think sometimes the Cup guys, like myself, make it look that way when we go to Nationwide and show what we can do there and lead all the laps and run up front. But you can only give so much sense to those guys in Nationwide of how strong we are as drivers and teams of what it's going to be like at the Cup level. Making that jump, it's challenging because the competition is so stiff, and your car has to be so good, and you've got to be able to communicate with your team and everything like that -- a lot more in particular than you do, say, in the other series."

This from a driver who won two races his rookie season at NASCAR's top level, including one at Phoenix that remains his lone victory in a Chase for the Sprint Cup event. But it was Busch's earlier victories on the Nationwide tour that gave him confidence he could make it, even during those rough times early on.

"The thing is, when you're in Truck or Nationwide or wherever you're coming from, you need to be winning. And if you're winning, you're used to that feeling so then when you get to the Cup level and you don't have the wins coming so often or as readily available because they're a lot harder to get, you seem to get down on yourself, and it seems to make you wonder sometimes whether you are ready or you aren't ready. You definitely just need to keep plugging along, keep trying, I guess, and make the most of the opportunity that you have to run well and maybe not necessarily win, but just run well."

That's perhaps a reason why Busch would prefer to see Larson in contention for victories more often. But one thing seems certain -- whether it's Larson or any other driver, each successive season needs to build on the last. The fate of Montoya, who stagnated at EGR after making the Chase for a first and only time in 2009, seems proof positive of that.

"I think you have to concentrate on making your sophomore year better than your rookie year and not go into that sophomore slump, so to say," Busch said. "But then the third year, fourth year in, you've got to definitely be in your own."

 

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