After completing his first season in the Nationwide Series by finishing 8th in points, the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing team feels that Kyle Larson is ready to take on a full-time Sprint Cup car next season.
With the departure of Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, EGR has given 21-year-old Larson the keys to the No. 42 for the 2014 season.
Larson finished strong with 17 Top 10’s and nine Top 5’s but failed to record a win or pole in his rookie Nationwide Series season. The biggest flaw in his rookie season was his eight 30th or worse finishes.
Being called the most complete prospect since Jeff Gordon, there are very high expectations for young Larson. Gordon, however, used two seasons in what is called the Nationwide Series today before moving up to a full-time Sprint Series ride. Gordon finished his first season with an 11th place finish (zero wins and one pole). After continuing in his second Nationwide season he notched three wins and 11 poles gaining more NASCAR car experience and gaining confidence.
Although like Kyle Busch who did not have much experience before entering a full-time Cup ride (54 combined NASCAR races) and was a year younger than Larson at the time, he was able to finish second in points and managed to record five wins and five poles complemented by 16 Top 5’s and 22 Top 10’s clearly dominating the Nationwide Series.
Much like his younger brother, Kurt Busch was also brought into the Sprint Series with little NASCAR experience. Only having 31 total races between the Camping World Truck Series and Sprint, Busch finished his rookie Sprint season poorly placing 27th with only six Top-10 finishes (three being Top 5’s) and one pole. Kurt Busch, unlike Kyle, is a prime example of how being brought into the top series, even on a top team, can lead to early career struggles.
Larson used his first Nationwide season to adapt to the NASCAR stock cars where he generally used the first half of each race to gather information and learn the track. It would have been wise to instead use a second season in Nationwide to reduce the eight 30th or worse finishes, record a few more wins/poles and compete for the Nationwide Championship. With the Gen-6 Cup cars being vastly different from the Nationwide cars, Larson should have spent some time dominating in a NASCAR ride rather than spending race after race adjusting and learning more than necessary (as it will become overwhelming and stressful in such a competitive league).
Other than the aforementioned Busch brothers, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne are the only drivers in the 2013 Top 20 Standings to have less than two seasons in the Nationwide Series before entering a full-time Sprint ride. With the exception of Newman, who had three 6th-place finishes and one 7th in his first four seasons, both Logano and Kahne struggled early on in their Sprint careers. However, unlike Larson who will only be a full-time Sprint Cup driver (with strictly companion races in Nationwide), Kahne and Logano had the opportunity to compete in both the NNS and NSCS in their first NSCS full season full time. Running in both series does have pros and cons, though. While the double duty of both series can allow a driver to gain added experience, it can also at times become very hectic and stressful, taking a toll on some drivers.
However, unlike all of the drivers mentioned above, Denny Hamlin finished his rookie season in 2006 third in points with two wins and 20 Top 10’s. Meanwhile, another driver who has has some success in the Sprint Cup and may be known by a few, Jimmie Johnson, had little success in the Nationwide Series finishing 10th and 8th in points before finishing 5th in his Sprint Cup rookie season posting three wins and 21 Top 10’s. The Nationwide cars have a different setup than the new Gen-6 Sprint cars, so while the success or lack of success in the NNS may have a good indication of a prospect’s future success, there are exceptions even among the sport’s elite.
So will Larson have a rookie season like Hendrick’s Jimmie Johnson, Joe Gibbs’ Denny Hamlin or Penske’s Joey Logano? Now that is the question.