NASCAR Michigan 2013: How young is too young?

Chris Graythen

There is no doubting Kyle Larson’s talent, but at 21 is he ready to make the full-time move to NASCAR’s top series?

The rumor mill is churning with speculation of who will replace Juan Pablo Montoya next season at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Among the names mentioned thus far are Mark Martin and Kurt Busch, the latter acknowledged he has had discussions with EGR officials about replacing Montoya.

There is, however, another driver whose name has been frequently discussed. One who is on the opposite side of the experience scale, Kyle Larson.


There is no doubting Larson's talent, he is considered a future superstar for a reason. His prodigious ability has impressed Jeff Gordon, who has continually praised him for his acumen behind the wheel. But the prevailing question this weekend at Michigan International Speedway is Larson's age and whether he's too young to be a full-time Sprint Cup driver?

"Is Larson ready for it? You could say he is. You could say he isn't," Kyle Busch said Friday.

A year younger than Larson when he moved to Cup full-time in 2005, Busch by any measure had a successful rookie campaign. He won twice and finished a respectable 20th in points en route to Rookie of the Year honors.

If EGR brings Larson to Cup in 2014 he would have completed just one full season of Nationwide, the same experience Busch had when he made the leap. However, Busch won five races in what was his freshman year in NASCAR's No. 2 series and finished runner-up in the standings.

Larson has yet to win a Nationwide race and currently is ranked eighth overall.

"I was racing (Martin) Truex (Jr.) for the championship and we had five poles and five wins on that year," Busch said. "We went into the weekend thinking either Truex was going to win or we were going to win and there was still Cup regulars coming over. We didn't care.

"Times have changed a little bit. Cars have changed a little bit. Larson I think is in a different situation than I was. I'd like to see him more top-fives, more challenging for wins like he was at Bristol (Motor Speedway) earlier this year."

However, success -- or a lack thereof -- in Nationwide doesn't always predicate how someone will do in the highest division of stock car racing.

Prior to being named the driver of a new team created by Hendrick Motorsports, Jimmie Johnson was a rather obscure face in Nationwide with a track-record that did not indicate he was destined for future greatness.

At the time his hire was a head-scratching move by Hendrick, but Gordon saw something in Johnson and encouraged Rick Hendrick to sign the driver who thus far had produced tepid results.

"I was really green in my Nationwide days; not only as a rookie in the sport and the cars and the tracks, but in stock cars in general," Johnson said. "I had two years in ASA prior to my first year of Nationwide.I think I was just behind. And the right circumstances came together being with Hendrick and all of that and my maturity level in the car and understanding everything came along and I kind of peaked at the right time."

Johnson cautions that spending too much time in Nationwide can hinder one's development. Because you're racing against lesser competition it's easy for a driver to form bad habits that will later prove detrimental.

The current points leader said Larson is prepared for stiffer competition and everything that being a Cup driver entails, though he will undoubtedly struggle. Johnson compares him to Tony Stewart, another driver with an open-wheel background who, due to lesser horsepower, had middling success in Nationwide but made a rather smooth transition to Cup.

"When you look at Kyle's background (in USAC) he's driving (sprint) cars with far more power than grip," Johnson said. "I think the Cup car will suit his style far better than a Nationwide car. But you do need that foundation of knowing these tracks ... and that's when the Nationwide Series is so good."

While Busch, Johnson and Stewart showed a driver doesn't need years of seasoning in Nationwide there are cautionary tales as well.

Not too long ago Joey Logano was heralded as a "can't-miss-prospect." At 18, he was seen as a future Cup champion and the heir apparent to Tony Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Yet with just minimal seat time in Nationwide, Logano was rushed to Cup when Stewart unexpectedly left. And in four seasons with the No. 20 team that Stewart led to a pair of titles, Logano has struggled and won just two races with zero Chase appearances. He left JGR at the end of last season to join Penske Racing.

Although he is the example most commonly used of what can happen when a driver is pushed before they're ready, Logano supports the idea that Larson is ready for Cup next season if that is what EGR decides.

"Kyle has a ton of talent and there is no doubt in my mind that he will be in the Sprint Cup Series but it is a big step," Logano said. "I know it is a big step and I think he knows it is going to be a big step. I think he can handle it also. He is 21, which is a lot older than I was when I first started doing it and he has a lot more racing experience than I had when I started. I feel like he has a shot at it."

Although he is just two years older than Larson, Logano, now a veteran, has some words of advice.

"I always tell people not to rush it because sometimes it isn't quite worth it," Logano said. "I have been fortunate to have this second chance over here at Penske and that has been working perfectly because I have the experience on my side now to go out there and race these guys."

More from SB Nation:

NASCAR power rankings

Who will Chip Ganassi sign to replace Montoya?

Juan Pablo Montoya not returning to EGR in 2014

Brian Vickers to drive No. 55 MWR car full-time

Longform: The good times and hard life of Dick Trickle

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