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NASCAR phenom Kyle Larson preparing for rookie Sprint Cup campaign

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Frequently heralded as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, 21-year-old Kyle Larson is getting set for his rookie Sprint Cup season.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-one-year-old Kyle Larson has heard the talk. He knows he's viewed as the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, and he has heard each of these NASCAR champions speak highly of him.

But typical of his low-key, yet confident persona, Larson both shies away and embraces the comparisons.

"I think it's really cool that people compare me to those two guys -- guys I've looked up to probably even before I started racing," Larson told SB Nation. "I try not to pay a whole lot of attention to it just because I don't want to let it get to my head and become cocky or anything like that. I just try and stay humble.

"It's done a lot for my career being compared to [Stewart and Gordon], but now I'll be racing them every week, so now I'm going to try and beat them."

In the days leading up to the 2013 Daytona 500, Stewart offered Larson effusive praise, saying he would "bet the farm" on him achieving success at NASCAR's highest level. "I guarantee it. If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident," said the three-time Cup champion.

Larson's rise has almost been meteoric. Two years ago, he was preparing for his first season of running the K&N East Series, a regional touring division akin to Single-A baseball. Having grown up racing sprint cars on pavement and dirt, it would be Larson's first full-time foray into stock-car racing.

"It's done a lot for my career being compared to [Stewart and Gordon], but now I'll be racing them every week, so now I'm going to try and beat them."-Kyle Larson

As he has done throughout his career, Larson not only lived up to expectations but exceeded them. He collected two victories, and in 14 races only finished outside the top 10 twice en route to the championship.

This paved the way for Chip Ganassi, who had signed Larson to a developmental deal prior to the 2012 season, to move him to the Nationwide Series, where in 2013 he ran the full schedule. The jump from K&N to NASCAR's No. 2 series is one few have successfully completed.

Yet Larson made the transition with ease, posting five runner-up finishes and ending the year eighth in points.

Another year has brought yet another change. In 2014, Larson is again moving up the NASCAR food chain, this time to Sprint Cup, where he will compete for Rookie of the Year driving the No. 42 Target Chevrolet. He is replacing Juan Pablo Montoya, who Ganassi let go after seven mostly disappointing seasons.

Conventional wisdom says Ganassi should have signed a veteran driver and let his protegee continue to hone his craft in Nationwide. But that he elected to tab a 21-year-old with just one full season of national-level experience speaks volumes about the confidence Larson elicits.

Larson has never wavered in his belief that he will have success in Cup. Accordingly, his expectations for his freshman season are quite lofty.

"I would like to finish top-15 each race; if you can do that you'll be close to making the Chase at the end of the season," Larson said. "I think the way the [Charlotte] test went last week, we definitely could get there. I would like to get a lot of top-10s, top-fives and maybe knock off a win or two.

"I try to make my expectations realistic and shoot for just being consistent."

The best finish by a rookie last season was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s third-place effort at Talladega. No rookie driver has won a Cup race since Joey Logano did so in 2009, and only one rookie (Denny Hamlin, 2006) has ever qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With a driving style he calls "pretty aggressive but not overly aggressive" and in his estimation, most comparable to Kasey Kahne, another USAC driver turned NASCAR star, Larson is excited about what's ahead.

Like others who have an open-wheel background and come from USAC, Larson feels more comfortable behind the wheel of a Cup car than a Nationwide car. The difference being the increased amount of horsepower a Cup car produces, which is similar to a sprint car.

"I'm looking forward to committing to one type of vehicle. My whole career I have never really gotten used to one thing."

"Growing up racing sprint cars where they have the same amount of horsepower, but they're half the weight of a Cup car, really helps you finesse a car around the track, and with stock cars you have to have a lot of finesse," Larson said. "I definitely think the route I took to get to where I am now will help me this season."

Accustomed to running upwards of a hundred-plus races per year in a variety of disciplines, Larson estimates he ran 120 races in 2012 and an even 100 this past season.

That schedule, however, will be trimmed considerable in 2014. Larson's focus -- at least at the beginning of the year -- will be almost exclusively on adjusting to Cup along with a full slate of Nationwide races. His hope is to pick up more sprint car events as the year moves along, but only if he proves to be a quick learner on the Cup side of things.

"I'm looking forward to committing to one type of vehicle," Larson said. "My whole career I have never really gotten used to one thing."

This offseason, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has an extensive testing schedule in place for Larson to help him better adapt. A week ago, he took part in a NASCAR wide test at Charlotte Motor Speedway with at least four additional tests planned before the season starts in February.

But Larson isn't completely forgoing his passion to compete outside of NASCAR. Along with Stenhouse, he will be running in next month's Chili Bowl, a sprint car race that attracts hundreds of drivers from around country. And in what he calls an "audition," Larson also tested a Ganassi-owned sports car last week. He's hoping his boss names him as one of his drivers for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona to be held in January.

And no different than most USAC drivers, Larson hopes to one day race in the Indianapolis 500.

"I would definitely like to run the Indy 500," he said. "Chip has really good IndyCar equipment. I think that is the biggest race in the world. It would mean a lot to myself, my family and all the friends I've made racing USAC over the last few years. It would be really cool."

That dream will have to wait as Larson has more pressing concerns.

"I hope I'm competitive each week," Larson said when asked what he's most apprehensive about as his rookie season edges closer. "That's the biggest thing to worry about.

"The Cup Series is extremely, extremely tough, and being a rookie your first season is spent learning a lot. Yeah, I would like to go out there and set the world on fire and prove people right -- and some people wrong -- but I have to take things week-by-week. Hopefully, in a few years I am consistently challenging for wins."

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