SONOMA, Calif. — Don’t look now, but NASCAR may have finally found its next superstar.
His name is Kyle Larson, and after a few seasons punctuated by alternative moments of great potential and profound struggle, the 24-year-old Elk Grove, California, native is having a breakout season.
Larson heads into Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway (1:30 p.m. ET, FS1) as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points leader on the strength of two race wins, five second-place finishes, seven top fives and 712 laps led.
If the Cup playoffs began tomorrow, Larson would be one of three heavy favorites to become the 2017 series champion, the other two being Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.
Larson’s also been tearing it up in sprint cars on dirt tracks this year. Between NASCAR and his other racing endeavors, Larson has posted double-digit victory totals already and there’s still more than half a season to go.
More than anything else, though, Larson seems to have the type of charisma to engage a NASCAR fan base that no longer has Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards to root for and soon, no more Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Larson said that the departure of some of NASCAR’s top stars is actually helpful for his visibility.
“We have been running good. A lot of us young guys have been running good this year, so it’s a great time for us all to kind of step up and show the sport and the fans that we can take it over,” said Larson “… Not necessarily take it over, but do a good job for the sport and be a face for NASCAR.”
Larson knows he has plenty of company.
“I think myself, Chase (Elliot), (Ryan) Blaney, (Daniel) Suarez, (Erik) Jones, Austin Dillon, (Ricky) Stenhouse, we are all under 30,” he said. “(Joey) Logano is still really young, I think with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. retiring this year we are still in a good spot or better spot with him retiring because I think it is a great opportunity for all of us.”
Of course, the most immediate matter at hand is to win this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. And once again this weekend, Larson has a fast Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
Larson topped the speed charts in Friday afternoon’s final round of Cup practice and he’s confident about his chances in Sunday’s race.
“We were pretty decent in qualifying trim and I thought we made some improvements in race trim from first practice to second practice,” said Larson. “I thought it was a successful practice. You can always be better. Forward drive is terrible here, so working on that is a struggle, but felt like we made some gains.”
Sunday, we’ll all find out just how big those gains were.
Gallery: All 14 of Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR Cup Series wins