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Larson Riding Wave of Confidence at Brickyard as New Breakthrough NASCAR Star

As Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about to join the likes of former champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart in retirement, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series spotlight inevitably shines on the next generation of promising drivers entrusted with filling the void.

Enter Kyle Larson, a 24-year-old Californian who is second in the points with two wins and seven runner-up finishes in his fourth season driving the No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

A former USAC short-track standout who has excelled in everything he’s driven from midgets, Silver Crown and sprint cars to NASCAR Camping World trucks and XFINITY Series cars, Larson isn’t shy about accepting the responsibility of being one of NASCAR’s most promising young guns.

“There’s definitely a huge youth movement coming in,” he said Saturday before qualifying 25th for the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 on Sunday. “It’s neat to see the style of drivers and teams that are different nowadays. It’s a great opportunity for us young drivers to do our part to help the sport out.

“Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, I’m sure I’m missing others, they’ve done so much for the sport to get us to where we’re at now for my generation. We’ve had a great, great crop of young guys already in the Cup series, and another eight or 10 below us in the trucks or XFINITY just waiting for more rides to open up.

“It’s a fun time. I feel like we’re all ready to take over in a way and lead the sport.”

One of those young drivers Larson is referring to is 19-year-old William Byron, who won the Lilly Diabetes 250 XFINITY Series race Saturday at IMS. The series rookie has been quite impressive with three races this season after celebrating seven victories in the Camping World Truck Series last year.

Earnhardt recently said Larson is “really, really good” and destined to solidify himself as “one of best drivers on the track.”

In addition to this season’s wins in the Auto Club 400 at Fontana, California, and the Firekeepers Casino 400 at Brooklyn, Michigan, Larson has been particularly impressive the past two starts. He started from the back of the field in 40th at the Quaker State 400 in Sparta, Kentucky, and 39th in the Overton’s 301 at Loudon, New Hampshire, but methodically drove to the front to finish second in both races.

“My confidence has definitely been high all season in all forms of racing I’ve done,” Larson said. “I feel like I have a shot to win in any type of car I race at any track.”

He’s continually backed that up. In the 2011 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway, Larson became just the second driver to win in all three types of USAC cars in a single night. In 2012, he won six USAC National Midget races.

The trend continued with two wins and 10 top-10 finishes in 13 trucks starts. He’s celebrated eight victories in 99 XFINITY starts.
After making four Cup starts at the end of 2013 for Phoenix Racing, he joined Ganassi and finished 17th and 19th in his first two full-time seasons. The learning curve is a necessary part of the process, he admits, and led to a breakthrough 2016 in which he won at Michigan and had nine other top-10 finishes to climb to ninth in the points.

This season started with a 12th in the Daytona 500, then three consecutive runner-up finishes before the win at Fontana. He’s had four more seconds in addition to winning again at Michigan.

“It’s been a fun summer,” he said. “Confidence is big in anything in life. When you’ve got that, it’s hard to stop that. The team’s really confident right now, even with all the tech issues the last couple weeks. We’re still as confident as ever, and it shows on the racetrack.”

Larson has a history of strong runs in the Brickyard 400, finishing fifth last year after placing eighth and seventh the previous two years.

“I’m really excited about this weekend because we have more speed than we’ve ever had anywhere so far in my career,” he said.

The Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400 starts at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday. Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for all 2017 IMS events, including the Brantley Gilbert Big Machine Brickyard 400, and for more information on all events.

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A former USAC short-track standout who has excelled in everything he’s driven from midgets, Silver Crown and sprint cars to NASCAR Camping World trucks and XFINITY Series cars, Larson isn’t shy about accepting the responsibility of being one of NASCAR’s most promising young guns.
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