Every so often, a driver comes along who causes everyone in the garage to sit up and take notice.
For one generation, that was Jeff Gordon. For another, it was Tony Stewart. Both drivers who were seen as can't miss prospects; each of whom would inevitably go on to greatness at NASCAR's highest level.
Kyle Larson, 20, has emerged on the NASCAR scene and in a very short amount of time appears to be NASCAR's next big thing.
This prodigious talent was on full display last week at Bristol Motor Speedway, where in the Nationwide Series race, Larson battled Kyle Busch to the checkered flag. And in what was the second closest finish in series history at Bristol, Busch narrowly defeated Larson.
Although it may not have been a victory, it might as well have been a coming out party for Larson; the latest example of why big things are expected out of the driver who has continually wowed the likes of Gordon and Stewart.
Stewart is so enamored with Larson's talent that he was willing to make a wager that Larson will have a highly successful career in NASCAR.
"You can bet the farm on it,'' Stewart said at Daytona in February. "I guarantee it. If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident.''
In 2012 as a rookie in the K&N East Series, Larson stormed to the championship on the strength of two victories, eight top fives and 12 top 10s in 14 races. As if this wasn't enough, Larson also made four starts in the Truck Series, where he posted finishes of 10th, sixth and second. The only blemish was a 27th-place run at Homestead, where he crashed out while racing for the lead.
Of course, Larson did all this in what was his first season wheeling a full-bodied stock car.
And a further testament to his proficiency, since the calendar flipped to 2013 Larson has scored victories driving a Late Model, Midget and sprint car.
Not surprisingly, Larson shares a similar background with Gordon and Stewart, having honed his skills in the Sprint and Midget USAC classes. In addition, he has competed in the highly competitive World of Outlaws Series, where he picked up a win in Stockton, Calif., on Friday.
Larson caught Stewart's attention a couple of years ago when he became just the second driver to sweep all three USAC classes on the same night at Eldora Speedway, a dirt track owned by Stewart himself.
However, Larson's ascent has been filled with some rocky moments recently.
In February at the Battle of the Beach NASCAR Late Model race, Larson was running second to CE Falk on the final lap when Larson spun Rhodes coming to the checkered flag. For the first time in his career, Larson faced criticism and backlash from drivers and fans alike.
But Larson learned from the incident at Daytona and when in a similar situation last week with Busch during the Nationwide race, Larson didn't use his bumper and instead raced the NASCAR superstar clean. And by doing so, he earned Busch's respect.
"You certainly want to try to win races the right way," said Busch following his Bristol victory. "He played it smart today; that was good on his end. I think a lot of people have been looking at him to try to see if he's going to be to a wrecker or a checker. Today he didn't get the checkers, but that's how you get them.
"I'm going to race him as hard as he raced me, but just as clean as he raced me because he didn't put a fender on me all day."
Larson acknowledged afterward that the finish to the Daytona Late Model race was in the back of his mind.
"I was pretty aggressive at the Battle of the Beach and I didn't want to have anything like that happen again and have more people look at me," Larson said at Bristol. "I don't race that way and didn't want to move (Busch).
"I wanted to outrace him. I'd gain a little more respect that way, and it made for a better finish, I think."
Impressive résumé aside, there are no sure things in NASCAR -- Larson included. The road to NASCAR greatness is littered with the careers of drivers who flamed out because they were rushed through the feeder system too quickly. For every Gordon, there is a Reed Sorenson and for every Stewart, there is a Casey Atwood.
Like Sorenson was as he was coming up through the ranks, Larson is a developmental driver for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Although Chip Ganassi has continually said there is no timetable to put Larson in a Sprint Cup car, the opportunity may soon present itself.
Both of Ganassi's teams have struggled the past two seasons and putting a phenom in one of his Cup cars may be the jumpstart the organization needs.
Whether that happens is still to be determined, for now Larson is focused on continuing to hone his skills in Nationwide along with running a full slate of supplemental races.
"I'm just going to keep trying to do the best I can," Larson said Friday at Auto Club Speedway. "If Chip wants to move me up, hopefully I'm ready and have learned enough in the Nationwide Series to prepare me for the Cup Series.
"I'm still taking it one race at a time and having a blast with what I'm doing right now, so I'm not looking anymore forward than where I am right now."
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