Brett Poirier · Monday September 2, 2013
There is more hype about Kyle Larson being the next superstar in Sprint Cup than there was about that Doritos taco shell coming to Taco Bell.
That’s a lot of hype.
“That kid is a lot better than (Jeff) Gordon or I was at his age,” Tony Stewart said about Larson in February. “You’re going to be hearing about him for a long time. He’s a special talent.”
He’s NASCAR’s version of the can’t-miss prospect. Football has Jadaveon Clowney and basketball has Andrew Wiggins. We have Larson.
And next season, he will run his rookie season with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
Wait, with whom? Isn’t that the team with two cars fighting to get in the top 20 in the standings?
That’s right, the most intriguing part of Friday’s press conference announcing Larson’s move to Cup wasn’t his age (21), or can’t-miss talent, it’s the organization he’s going to be driving for. Other hyped prospects such as Joey Logano and Stewart were placed in top-notch equipment right away at Gibbs and Gordon settled with a team that went on to win 10 of the last 18 championships, so I guess that worked out OK.
Larson is with NASCAR’s version of the Cleveland Cavaliers; a team that has never won a title, and most years doesn’t make the playoffs. Now, he knows how LeBron James felt. LeBron certainly tried to make it work. He overachieved with less-talented teams and even brought Cleveland to the finals one year.
But eventually, he took his talents to South Beach — where he’s won back-to-back titles.
If Larson is going to live up to the enormous hype surrounding him, something has to give.
Dating back to 1995, here are the championship teams:
2012: Penske Racing
2011: Stewart-Haas Racing
2010: Hendrick Motorsports
2009: Hendrick Motorsports
2008: Hendrick Motorsports
2007: Hendrick Motorsports
2006: Hendrick Motorsports
2005: Joe Gibbs Racing
2004: Roush Racing
2003: Roush Racing
2002: Joe Gibbs Racing
2001: Hendrick Motorsports
2000: Joe Gibbs Racing
1999: Robert Yates Racing
1998: Hendrick Motorsports
1997: Hendrick Motorsports
1996: Hendrick Motorsports
1995: Hendrick Motorsports
Earnhardt Ganassi is not on there, and frankly they haven’t been close. While EGR has improved its performance in the last year — they were on the same ground as Front Row Racing for a little while — this isn’t a championship team right now. It isn’t even a Chase team.
Now, a 21-year-old with no victories in his first season of Nationwide — for a middle-of-the-road team — is going to be brought in to be the savior. Good luck, Kyle.
The list above proves that top equipment always wins over talent. If Jimmie Johnson is put at Front Row Motorsports, where does he finish in the championship? I’m guessing he’d be right in front of David Gilliland. So, one of three things will happen with Larson at EGR:
1. He single-handedly raises the level of the organization with his performance — the happy ending.
2. He struggles mightily and EGR is criticized for bringing him up too quickly, while analysts suggest that maybe Larson isn’t the talent we all thought he was — the sad ending.
3. He leaves for greener pastures (Gibbs, Hendrick or Penske) — the inevitable.
The first possibility would be great for the sport. To see a mid-level team that has kept fighting through turmoil to finally rise to the top would be great to see, and would showcase Larson’s ability. The second possibility seems more realistic.
I’m sure Chip Ganassi has had countless nightmares about the third possibility, which is why he is holding Larson tighter than a newborn baby at the edge of a skyscraper. If I were Ganassi, I’d tell Larson there is no talking to anyone in the garage area unless I am right there by your side. I’d also assign him some sort of security task force to surround him at all times.
The most comparable talent that didn’t enter Sprint Cup with one of the sport’s premier organizations was Kasey Kahne. Kahne was snatched out of a Ford developmental program to drive one of Ray Evernham’s Dodges after Bill Elliott initially retired. Even this comparison isn’t perfect by any means because Elliott won a host of races in the No. 9 car before Kahne stepped in. The car Larson is stepping into has been close on a number of occasions, but hasn’t won a race since 2010.
Kahne stayed as Evernham’s team transitioned into George Gillett’s team, and then again into Richard Petty Motorsports. Kahne won races, but he couldn’t compete for a championship there, so he left for Hendrick Motorsports. He wanted to be with a top team so bad that he made the announcement a year and a half early, and had to find a team for the 2011 season because of the lousy position he put himself in.
Now, Kahne is a championship contender. As talented as he is, he couldn’t do it without Hendrick — the same way every other driver we consider elite wouldn’t be considered that if they weren’t lucky enough to end up with top teams. And at the same time, with certain drivers — Gilliland for example — we can only wonder what they would’ve been capable of if they had been given the right opportunity.
In five years, will we still be wondering about Larson? In 10?
That would be a shame. Something has to give with this situation, and whether Larson elevates EGR, struggles mightily or jumps ship, I don’t know, but it is intriguing.
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