HAMPTON, Ga.–As Kyle Larson fielded questions from reporters Friday in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center, the car he will drive next year ran laps in practice at the 1.54-mile intermediate track, with Juan Pablo Montoya behind the wheel.
That juxtaposition underscored the depth of change that’s coming to the No. 42 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team next year.
Team owner Chip Ganassi introduced Larson as the new driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet SS, starting in 2014. Larson will replace Juan Pablo Montoya whose contract was not renewed by the organization.
It amounts to a sea change for the team.
Montoya, 37, is a former Indianapolis 500 champion and a seven-time winner in Formula One Racing. In seven seasons of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing, he has two victories to his credit, both at road courses.
Larson, 21, has learned his craft in high-horsepower Sprint Cars but has adapted well to closed-cockpit vehicles. He’s currently eighth in the Nationwide Series standings, with six top fives and 13 top 10s in 23 starts with Turner Scott Motorsports. An occasional competitor in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series, Larson has a win and six top fives in six NCWTS starts.
Though a move from Nationwide to Sprint Cup is a quantum leap in class, Larson feels he’s ready, even with less than a full season of NNS racing under his belt.
“I guess there’s a point when somebody’s not ready,” Larson said Friday. “But I feel like I am ready. I feel like I can go out there and contend. I raced with some Cup guys in the Nationwide Series this year and learned a lot from them. Raced them hard. Beat some of them.
“I think I can do it. I think Chip obviously thinks I can do it, so that’s all that really matters to me.”
“Certainly we believe that Kyle is the future of the sport,” Ganassi said. “He’s a unique talent. Let me be very clear–this was a racing decision. We felt that Kyle was the best short-term and long-term fit for the team and for (sponsor) Target.”
In fact, because of his background in sprint cars, Larson may find a greater comfort level in the Cup car that he does in the less powerful NNS machines. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has amassed 64 Cup victories after winning once in the Nationwide Series, was among those who offered that opinion.
“The Nationwide stuff, I don’t know, it’s about 200 horsepower less than a Cup car,” Larson said. “With my sprint car background, they’re 1,400-pound cars with 900-horsepower engines. I’m used to having way too much horsepower. I think it will translate well to the Cup cars.
“I’ve gotten to test (a Cup car) earlier this year at Rockingham. I feel like I did pretty well in it, enjoyed it. I feel like it suited me a little bit better. We have to finesse the car a little bit more. It wasn’t so much momentum driven.
“I think that’s where I struggle a little bit in the Nationwide stuff. I probably don’t understand momentum quite as good as Kyle Busch or somebody. That’s why I think the Cup stuff will be a little bit better for me. We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess.”
Ganassi hopes to put Larson in a Cup car this season, but not in lieu of Montoya, who will complete the season in the No. 42. Toward that end, Ganassi already has had discussions with the No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet team which is undergoing an ownership transfer from James Finch to Harry Scott.
Justin Allgaier will make his Cup debut in the 51 car at Chicagoland in September, but there are open races in the car that could provide an opportunity for Larson to begin his Cup career, Ganassi said.
NOT IN MY CAR
Matt Kenseth is all for the youth movement in Sprint Cup racing–as long as it doesn’t affect him.
Kyle Larson’s hiring at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing prompted one reporter to ask Kenseth what he thought of the advent of younger drivers into the sport and the potential departure of some of the veterans.
“If you’re just asking about the young guys, drivers coming in and some of the older drivers getting out, I think there’s always… I think the changing of the guard is good, unless you’re the guard getting changed,” Kenseth said. “Then it’s not so good for you.”