Kyle Larson was identified as having the potential to be a racing superstar by Pete Willoughby and Keith Kunz from the start.
They sometimes miss when a driver is oversold to them. However, they are rarely wrong. They generally discover it fairly quickly.
When they returned from the 2011 Chili Bowl, I met with Willoughby to discuss the race and the new prospects that he saw there. Their pick was, of course, Larson, who is from Elk Grove, Calif.
Since a ride with Keith Kunz Motorsports is doubtless the most coveted seat in midget racing, they almost always sign their pick. That was the case in 2011.
Willoughby said, “Larson is the best that I’ve ever seen. He may well be better than Tony Stewart at the same age.”
Better than Tony Stewart?
I don’t know that I’d go that far, but he’s certainly in the same league. Stewart probably had a little tougher climb to the top as first-class rides were a little harder to come by. The prize money wasn’t nearly as good.
However, suffice to say that both Stewart and Larson are head and shoulders above their contemporaries.
There are many similarities between the drivers. Both would rather race than do anything else. Larson ran 130 races last season; and Stewart also raced at every opportunity.
Larson won the NASCAR K&N East championship last season in addition to winning just about all of the USAC sprint and midget races that he could fit into his schedule. In addition, he worked in some NASCAR Camping World Truck races, some ARCA stockcar races and some World of Outlaws winged sprint races. All of this was, of course, in preparation for going into the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season.
Larson made his debut in the Nationwide series Saturday at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway. He qualified 21st and wound up finishing 13th — not bad for a 21-year-old rookie.
Even more impressive, he looked to be headed for a third-place finish when he was caught up in a mess not of his making. As the field came down to take the checkered flag, he was caught up in a grinding crash that saw him get hit from every direction with more parts of his car knocked off with every hit. Finally, what was left of his Chevrolet Impala was catapulted into the catch fence where his engine was deposited. He climbed from the steaming hulk uninjured, and he was almost certainly aware just how lucky he was.
He commented that he was supposed to be at Ocala, Fla., Saturday evening to run a USAC sprintcar race, but it didn’t appear that that was going to happen. And it didn’t. Tracy Hines, the eventual winner at Ocala, was pleased to be without competition from Larson.
While no driver would wish to make that kind of debut in a new series, it is almost certain that race fans across the country are familiar with Larson’s name and will be watching him closely as the season progresses. Larson and Clorox, his Nationwide series sponsor, are bound to be well-known names among race fans as the season progresses.
Tight USAC points race
The United States Auto Club took its potent sprintcar series to Bubba Raceway Park at Ocala, Fla., for the Winter Dirt Games IV. They had a full field of cars all three nights (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). The promoters were almost certainly pleased with the show that their fans enjoyed.
On Thursday, Chase Stockon of Elizabethtown set quick time edging Brady Bacon, Hunter Schuerenberg, Bryan Clauson, Kevin Thomas Jr. and Chris Windom.
Nick Drake (son of open wheel standout Jay Drake), Brady Short, Jac Haudenschild and Shane Cottle won the heat races, while Windom prevailed in the hooligan.
Dave Darland started the feature on the pole and led the first 19 circuits. Defending National Driving Champion Clauson led lap 20 before returning the lead to Darland. As the pair came down to take the white flag, Clauson had recaptured the lead and held it until the checkered flags waved. Darland held on to finish second, with Bacon, Schuerenberg, and Robert Ballou rounding out the top five.
On Feb. 22, Robert Ballou started on the pole and led the first 29 laps before losing the lead to Hines as they came down to take the checkered flags. Schuerenberg came home third, followed by Stockon and Darland.
On Feb. 23, Hines started on the outside of the first row and took the lead that he would hold until the checkered flags waved. However, the entire distance was a battle between him and Tyler Courtney for the win. Stockon, Ballou and Schuerenberg rounded out the top five.
As the series ended, Schuerenberg held four-point lead over Stockon and a seven-point lead over Hines and Clauson.
It is interesting to note that Hank Byram, Schuerenberg’s car owner, and Chase Stockon (his own car owner) live only a few miles apart.
Tim McKinney is an auto racing columnist for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.