FONTANA, Calif.—Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick both realized how special the moment was.
Busch, who typically is disgusted when he runs second, seemed happy with third.
Harvick, another hard-nosed racer with a first-or-bust mentality, took his runner-up finish in stride.
Busch and Harvick, whose uneasy relationship on and off the track has been riddled with rancor, seemed downright comfortable as they sat side-by-side at the dais in the media center at Auto Club Speedway, deferring to each other with unfeigned politeness.
To their credit, neither driver wanted to sully a moment that was indeed … special.
Minutes earlier, Busch and Harvick had climbed from their cars after a NASCAR Nationwide Series race that featured breathtaking, unrelenting action during the closing laps, as Busch, Harvick and race winner Kyle Larson battled in close quarters for the victory.
That’s right—race winner Kyle Larson, who scored his first NNS win in Saturday’s TreatMyClot.com 300. All three drivers had given their utmost, and Larson had earned the victory, fairly, cleanly and with the exercise of extraordinary talent.
Accordingly, Busch and Harvick gave Larson his due after the race, in what amounted to a fitting welcome to the fraternity.
A day later, in Sunday’s Auto Club 400, Larson came within .214 seconds of doing in his ninth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start what his predecessor in the No. 42 Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, Juan Pablo Montoya, hadn’t accomplished in seven full seasons—a Sprint Cup victory on an oval track.
It took all of Busch’s guile and consummate skill to keep Larson behind him, to prevent a 21-year-old Cup rookie from sweeping the NASCAR weekend in his native California.
Larson’s head-turning performance, however, should have surprised exactly no one. If you didn’t see this coming, or if you thought Larson was promoted to the Sprint Cup Series too quickly, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Tony Stewart, who has a keen eye for talent at every level and form of motorsports, has been answering the same question for three years, some variation of “Who’s the best young talent with the brightest future in NASCAR racing?”
The first name out of Stewart’s mouth has always been “Kyle Larson.”
There was no second name.
For those whose familiarity with the speed sports begins and ends with NASCAR stock car racing, terms like “Chili Bowl,” “Knoxville Nationals,” and “Kings Royal,” are steeped in mystery. Casual fans don’t know what these races are, much less where they are.
But these, and races like them, are the subterranean showcases where Larson honed his skills in the open-wheel ranks, and where veteran drivers like Stewart were quick to identify his exceptional talent.
Legend has it that Larson attended his first race when he was a week old. It’s no legend, though, that in 2011 Larson became the second driver in history to win all three USAC races (Midgets, Silver Crown and Sprint Cars) in the 4-Crown Nationals at Stewart’s Eldora Speedway–on the same night. That’s fact.
And that underlines the determination Larson brings to the Sprint Cup Series, where he expects to win a race and qualify for the Chase this year. A graduate of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Larson’s quiet confidence is neither egocentric nor over-inflated. It’s simply that his own expectations mirror those of others.
Joey Logano, whose arrival at the Cup level as a teenager was accompanied by the same sort of fanfare that has greeted Larson, had to grow into the expectations that preceded him, much as child eventually fills out a shirt too big in the shoulders.
To his credit, Logano has parlayed some hard knocks and a change of scene into a solid career as a Sprint Cup contender.
Larson is already there. Whether they realized it or not, fans who watched the kid with the Eddie Munster haircut flash across the finish line on Saturday or Sunday got a vivid glimpse of the future from a driver who seems destined to make an indelible impression on the sport.
The next time Larson beats them—and he will—Harvick and Busch likely won’t be so charitable.
But by then, as a full-fledged member of the fraternity, Larson likely won’t care.