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Sprint Cup driver Larson wants to show he’s no ordinary rookie

Kyle Larson climbs into his car during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, July 3, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Kyle Larson climbs into his car during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Thursday, July 3, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

LOUDON – For years, Chip Ganassi Racing had name recognition. But the team needed a spark.

It had Ganassi, one of open wheel racing’s most prominent owners, at the helm, and Daytona 500 champ Jamie McMurray and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya in the cars. On paper, the team had the necessary pieces. In reality, stock car success avoided Ganassi, replaced instead by a steady mediocrity and string of lukewarm results.

This year, the shakeup came. Montoya left the No. 42. Rising star Kyle Larson took his place.

And suddenly, things are looking brighter in the Ganassi garage.

The hype machine was in full gear when Larson embarked on his first full Sprint Cup season, but the 21-year-old has

managed to meet the expectations. With seven top-10s and three top-fives so far, he’s moved himself to the brink of a Chase spot and the front of the Rookie of the Year race – all while providing a jolt for a struggling team.

“We’re pretty confident,” Larson said. “We’ve just got to stay consistent and put ourselves in position like we have all year if we don’t win a race to get into the Chase. … If we do get there, I’d be super confident that we’d pull it off, so I am hoping we can get into the Chase for sure. I think we have got a good shot.”

Making the jump up is a learning experience for all rookies, let alone drivers only two years removed from a K&N Pro Series East championship. Sprint Cup driving is faster, more aggressive and more ruthless, and it often takes a while for newcomers to adapt to the competition. Larson, who was 38th in the season-opening Daytona 500, seemed destined for that same learning curve – until he finished 10th at the fourth race of the year in Bristol, then notched finishes of second, fifth and eighth within the next four races to quickly vault from rookie project to Chase contender.

“Well, I think growing up racing a lot of different types of cars and being young at that helped me learn things quick,” he said. “You know, when I was 15, 16 years old, I would be racing winged sprint cars one night, non-winged the next, a pavement track the next night. I got good at adapting to things and learning really fast.”

Still, there was the matter of living up to the potential people in the sport have been drooling over. After all, this is the driver that Tony Stewart said was a “special talent,” that Jeff Gordon said “gets more out of the car than anybody can get out of it,” and who won Rookie of the Year awards in both the K&N Pro Series East and Nationwide Series.

It can be a lot to live up to, and perform up to. But Larson, instead of shying away from the heavy pressure and glaring spotlight, embraces them.

“I think it’s really cool,” he said. “I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it. I mean, I guess if you have a lot of attention on you, that means you’re doing something good. I guess even more attention would be even better.”

That’s not to say that the transition has been seamless. Larson’s had moments that remind everyone that the 21-year-old prodigy and 21-year-old first-year Cup driver are one in the same. After mostly sidestepping consecutive duds, he’s slipped in three straight races entering Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, posting finishes of 28th, 40th and 36th to fall from seventh in the points to 17th.

Still, the new Chase qualifying criteria makes it easier for drivers to salvage their postseason hopes, and knowing that, Larson has been able to look at the recent stretch as more a bump in the road than a sign of decline.

“I think my crew chief said it best. He’d be worried in the last couple years, but now our car has been fast, so he’s not worried at all,” Larson said. “We haven’t had many struggles all year, and now we’ve had a couple bad ones. Just got to get back on track.”

Getting back on track would mean showing the form he’s displayed for most of the season, which has him neck-and-neck with Austin Dillon for the Rookie of the Year award, and which has injected life back into his team. No Ganassi drivers have made the Chase since Montoya finished eighth in 2009, and Jamie McMurray’s 15th-place finish last year was the first time the team had a driver finish above 20th since 2010.

Larson’s arrival gave the team a talent that can run near the front of the pack, and judging by an impressive victory for McMurray in the All-Star Race in May, the good vibes aren’t limited to just the 42 car.

“I mean, the whole team, from Chip to everybody in the shop and just everybody in the whole organization has done a great job to get into both mine and Jamie’s teams, being able to compete for wins every week, which is awesome,” Larson said. “It’s definitely lit a fire in Chip and everybody at the shop again. We’re all super pumped up to get to the track.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at abonifant@cmonitor.com or 369-3340 or on Twittter @dbonifant.)

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