NASCAR: Will The Real Kyle Larson Please Stand Up?

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports /

Since his first full season in Sprint Cup Kyle Larson has been full of promise but has been streaky. Is the real Kyle Larson finally pushing through and giving us a taste of things to come?

The star of All-Star weekend was no doubt Kyle Larson. His performance in the Showdown and the All-Star Race that followed made him the stand-out performer on Saturday. This on the heels of his spectacular finish fighting Matt Kenseth at Dover last week has people in the sport asking if this is finally when Kyle Larson becomes the star we all hoped he would be.

From the start there has been a lot of hype about the young Chip Ganassi driver. He came into Cup labeled the next big star, something that dogged Joey Logano for years. Whenever there was a list of “next driver to get their first win”, Larson, if not on the top was not far behind. We have seen stretches where Larson looks to be on the verge, but just as fast he returns to middle of the pack.

His rookie season he started with five top-10’s in his first ten races. That is the way to break into the NASCAR spotlight. He went through a slow down in the middle of the season, still scoring occasional top-10’s, but not a regularly. He then finished the season as strong as any other driver in the series with top-10’s in seven of his last eleven races, with two second-place finishes. Larson had all the NASCAR media tagging him as being a contender for the title in 2015 without being able to score a win in 2014. That is some pressure to be putting on the 21-year-old driver from Elk Grove California.

Having won in his seventh ever race in any of NASCAR’s top series, Larson has been labeled as having maybe the most raw talent behind the wheel as any driver in the sport. The comparisons to Tony Stewart are natural with Larson’s success in sprint cars as a teenager. He is still just the second driver to win in all four silver crown classes in one night at Tony Stewart’s famed Eldora Speedway. His list of accomplishments as a teenager in a variety if different types of cars made his early success in NASCAR less surprising and more of fulfilling his destiny.

The 2015 season came around and all the pre-season analysis had Kyle Larson taking the next step, winning races and contending for the Sprint Cup in his second season. Something funny happened on the way to the Chase, on the track Larson did not perform up to what he had in 2014. The ten races it took for him to get five top-10’s in 2014, turned into twenty races top get five top-10’s in 2015. He was only able to string two top tens together all season and he never had any momentum in the 2015 campaign.

Every team has up and downs, so you might think it was just an off season for the 42 bunch. The only problem with that is Larson’s teammate, Jamie McMurray, had a stellar season in 2015. His team finished outside the top-25 only five times and made the Chase for the Sprint Cup. McMurray having an improved consistent season just added to the confusion over what was going on with Larson’s team.

Unlike stick and ball sports, there is no film on competitors that allows teams to defeat certain others. Was this was just a case of Larson stepping back after a solid rookie season, or was it a sign that maybe there hype had gotten a bit out of control for the talented rookie? The sport is littered with drivers that come into the sport with a lot of publicity then fade away. David Gilliland and Trevor Bayne come to mind right away as recent examples of drivers with promise that hit big, but never matched the headlines written about them.

That brings us to 2016, and the season that started with a nice seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500 has not lead to any consistency again. Larson followed up his seventh at Daytona with a 26th in Atlanta and a 34thin las Vegas. That is a very rough sign for one of the drivers that was expected to benefit with the newly implemented lower downforce package being run full time in 2016. More up and down was to follow, with a 39th at Auto Club Speedway to a third in Martinsville his swings kept on coming.

When NASCAR rolled into Dover for the AAA 400 Drive for Autism Speaks, Larson was expected to perform well having never finished outside the top-11 at the mile of concrete in either Sprint Cup or Xfinity races. First half of that race Larson was not challenging for anything other than staying on the lead lap. Then the team turned it on and Larson charged to the front, challenged Matt Kenseth for the win while holding off Chase Elliot in one for the most exciting NASCAR races in years. The young kid and the chiseled former champion battled it out lap after lap.

Matt Kenseth may have won the battle that Sunday afternoon but young Kyle Larson was the story coming out of that race. We were all reminded of the talent that Larson showed winning at short tracks in places like Watsonville California and Jefferson Georgia. It was not just that he was challenging Kenseth, it was how he drove. He raced him with aggression and attitude, but did not resort to knocking the veteran out of the way. He raced him clean and earned something more than a second place purse with that drive, respect.

After a week of people talking about the show from Dover that Larson and Kenseth turned in, Larson was forced to qualify for NASCAR’s All Star race through the Open race on Saturday morning. Not only did Larson qualify in, he did so spectacularly with a door banging finish versus new young star Chase Elliot. Another week of racing and more headlines for Larson. This is what the young driver needed, to perform at the top level week to week.

To make things even better, qualifying to the NASCAR’s All Star event, he got another chance to show his talent. He did, and he did it again spectacularly racing for the win and cementing the fact that he has the talent to race at the top level in NASCAR. In an event that left fans and drivers alike confused, the one thing everyone could agree on is Saturday, Kyle Larson was the star of the weekend.

Related Story: Five Lesson we Learned from the All Star Race

Two weeks, two spectacular performances from a driver some were beginning to lose faith in. Now we stay in Charlotte for the Coca Cola 600 and we get to see if Larson can make it three in a row. This is the kind of opportunity that Larson has not been able to capitalize on recently. To perform at his best and stay out of trouble week after week. In 2014 he was able to do just that right up until the Geico 400 at Talladegea where his performance began to yoyo.

One of the unfair expectations of Kyle Larson is that he should running top five to ten every week. Unlike Ganassi Racing teams in IndyCar and IMSA, his NASCAR organization is not a top their team. Don’t get me wrong, they are not back markers, but they are not on the same level as Gibbs, Hendrick or even his rival in the other series Penske. The gauge for success as long as Larson is with Ganassi has to be the occasional win, but running in the top fifteen week to week. Kyle Larson in 2014 and Jamie McMurray proved in 2015 that is what the team is capable of.

At Dover and again at Charlotte this Saturday we got to see two of the young stars that are expected to lead NASCAR into the future. For Larson it is hard to see if his future is there with Ganassi or if the rumors of Tony Stewart wanting him on one of his cars is the path that will lead him to regular success. If Kyle Larson is to move into the ranks of the elite drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series ranks he is going to have to find the consistency he lost in 2014. If that happens, weather in a Ganassi car or elsewhere, the future of NASCAR is in his hands.