My Brain on NASCAR: Larson latest sign of youth movement

col-cathyelliottWere you excited to see Kyle Larson win the Auto Club 400 on March 26? If not, I have bad news for you: You’d better get used to it.

My grandmother, to whom the word “indomitable” could be justifiably applied, once said this to me: “I know I’m getting old, because all my friends are dying.”

I can relate to that on a professional level, because all my friends are retiring.

Numerous times over the past few years we’ve talked about the fact that NASCAR is in a period of transition. Tony Stewart has retired, and although it was an unexpected early-departure situation, so has Carl Edwards.

We thought Jeff Gordon had, too, but just when we were trying to accept the fact that the four-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was completely done, had stepped out of the car for good, was absolutely finished, Elvis had left the building, he was recruited to fill in during Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s extended medical leave last season.

Also, Gordon has already gone on record in this fledgling season as saying that given “an extreme circumstance,” he would be willing to crawl right back through that driver’s-side window.

If you’re a fan of Earnhardt, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray or seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, brace yourself. All of these guys are over 40, and while that’s not old by any means, I think it’s safe to say they’re all most likely eyeing that retirement door and thinking about the proper time to walk through it.

Only four drivers over the age of 50 have won races in the Cup Series – Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Mark Martin, and Bobby Allison. Allison is also the oldest NASCAR champion to date, winning the title in 1983 at age 45.

Drivers like these are the reason we love racing. We have grown up with them, and for us, they are the collective face of NASCAR. But that face isn’t looking quite as fresh as it once did, and at some point we’re all going to have to accept it. Yes, I’m going to say it; the time will come when we’ll all be moving on with someone younger, which is pretty exciting.

For many of us, that will be Kyle Larson.

Larson won his first Cup Series race last year, and has really poured it on so far this season, with three consecutive second-place finishes headed into the March 26 race in Fontana, California, his home state. The driver of the No. 42 Chevy SS for Chip Ganassi Racing followed up a win in the Xfinity Service King 300 on Saturday with an impressive performance on Sunday, persevering through a series of four late cautions to take the checkered flag in the Auto Club 400.

It was, to put it mildly, a good weekend. Larson, who is 24 years old, credited longevity as a key factor in the victory.

“Every time you go back to a track for what would now be probably like my seventh or eighth time, it helps. Experience is a great thing,” he said. (By way of comparison, Johnson has competed in 25 races at Auto Club Speedway, winning six times. That’s experience.)

He went on to add, “I’m really, you know, fortunate to be driving really fast race cars right now. In both series I feel like I have a shot to win every time I go to the racetrack.  That’s always a lot of fun.  That’s always something I’ve hoped for, to get to a point of that in my NASCAR career.”

Then, he did my very favorite thing—he went third person.

“It’s a blast to show up to the racetrack every week,” he said. “It’s lot of fun to be Kyle Larson right now.”
If by this point you might think I’m being sort of catty, I will admit I’m having a little fun at the kid’s expense, but here’s how I really feel.

In a time when NASCAR’s popularity is skewing toward the low side, this young driver is in a perfect position to be one of NASCAR’s next superstars and a key player in bringing back some of the sport’s former glory. He is extremely skilled behind the wheel and refreshingly honest when dealing with the media; when he’s happy or excited, he lets it show.

Also, there’s no denying the charm to be found in the enthusiasm of youth … especially when, like Kyle Larson, you have the talent to back it up.

Cathy Elliott is the former public relations director at Darlington Raceway and author of the books Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR, Desktop 500, and Darlington Raceway: Too Tough to Tame. Contact her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.

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